Who is Worthy of Survival at the End of the World? On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

On the Edge of Gone cover

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I want to preface this with that I read this for my Bi Book Club and it turns out the bisexual character is a supporting one, not the main one. So I will focus this review on that relationship.

This was a really good look into who gets to survive the apocalypse. It follows the story of a young autistic girl, Denise, doing everything she can to help her family live while still dealing with her sensory issues and working through her social behaviors. It makes you question the value put on humanity when the only thing valued is productivity and how much you can offer.

As Denise navigates the end of the world as they know it with a mother who struggles with substance abuse, she seeks to find her sister, Iris, lost amid the chaos. Iris is a bisexual transgender woman who, for the first half of the book, appears mostly in flashbacks as Denise remembers key points of her childhood.

Even as the world unravels due to natural disasters, Denise always remembers her sister and her role in getting Denise to where she is now. Memories show that when Iris first began recognizing herself as a girl and wanted to transition, she trusted her sister Denise as her first confidante. As children, they played a game where she “pretended to be a girl.” Duyvis presents a nuanced dynamic, as Denise struggles at first to understand this because often with autism, she has difficulty grasping concepts that are not literal. But as Iris gets older and explains what it means to be a transgender person, Denise comes to accept her sibling as her sister.

Iris gravitated toward a queer community in their home city in Amsterdam that she invited Denise to join and take part in to help her make friends. It’s this very community Iris sought to help and protect when the meteor hit Earth, leaving her separated from her mother and sister. While many people got to leave on generation ships to populate another planet, most were left behind to live on a destroyed Earth. Iris knew her community would be among the majority left behind.

Iris’s efforts to help the queer community rebuild and prepare for survival through mutual aid are a reflection of Denise’s struggle to make herself “useful” so she can be accepted aboard a generation ship. Iris recognized early on as a transgender individual on hormones, she wouldn’t qualify as a priority to bring on board a generation ship. She knew that others like her would get left behind and so she chose to stay and help them.

On the surface, this novel is a slow-build apocalypse, but look a little deeper and you will find it’s more about who is deemed worthy of survival.

A Book and Herb Review: Basil and Oregano by Melissa Capriglione

the cover of Basil and Oregano

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Basil and Oregano is a sweet, safe, very cute and inclusive graphic novel about two girls who fall in love while competing to become top student at their magical cooking school. While chock-full of softness and cuteness, the story also includes serious themes that keep the stakes high. I never exactly worried while reading the book—I knew things would turn out well—but I often wondered, because how would they?

Each main of the main girls faces challenges during the story. Basil has attended the same school for years, but must become top student in at least two quarter-finals to keep the scholarship that lets her follow her dream, knowing her dads can’t afford tuition. Oregano is a new student whose famous magic-using chef mom expects only the best. Luckily, between their budding relationship, excellent friends, and adorable plant-puppy, the girls have a strong support network.

The Aesthetics

Biggest warning: do not read this book at the start of a shift when your lunchbreak isn’t until four hours from now, because you will be looking at drool-worthy food!

I don’t have the strongest visual literacy, and often the deeper meanings of artwork are lost on me. Luckily, this graphic novel mixes a literal setting with amplified elements to tell even a reader like me the important pieces of the story. The food, as mentioned above, looks delicious. The familiars—a mix of magical and realistic, like a puppy growing a leaf of a cowlick or a kitten with dragon wings—are beyond adorable. In some ways, the art style cranks up to eleven. But it also stays safe. Even when danger looms, something stylistic assures you: it’ll be okay in the end.

The Relationship

“Relationship” is a better descriptor than “romance,” because this isn’t exclusively a romance. This is a story about two competitors with mutual crushes who become friends and how that develops into something more. It’s sweet and gentle. Anyone who does any sort of cooking knows basil and oregano get along, and these two are no exception! They work well together. They help each other through different challenges, such as family stress and educational burnout.

I appreciated the lack of relationship drama. The girls sometimes worry about each other, but resolve matters with communication and kindness. It was just what I like in a story.

At the same time, other relationships shine throughout the story. Basil and her besties, Villy and Addy, are friends and competitors at once. Her dads love her, even if they can be so embarrassing sometimes. Teachers at the magiculinary school are tough, but not without compassion for their students.

The Conflict

If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that its conflicts are resolved too tidily. That might sound both silly and expected—haven’t I been going on about how sweet and cute and gentle this book is? Well, yes, I have. But to me, the mean girl crosses a line that is just not addressed when she eavesdrops and blackmails Oregano. Oregano’s mom is cruel, and it’s sort of shrugged off with a hug. This may be more of a flaw in myself as a reader. In a way, the book does challenge me to consider that: everything has worked out well, so why can’t I be happy with that? But I do wish some of the themes that challenge characters throughout the book were less simply concluded.

That’s my perspective, though. Maybe you want to read a fluffy book with a fluffy ending. Either way, I strongly recommend Basil and Oregano. Is it perfect by the standards of a nitpicky reader? No. Is it still a five-star read? Definitely!

The Herbs

Since I brought it up, both are delightful! Basil has a lovelier taste and oregano is easier to grow.

The Magic of Community: Brooms by Jasmine Walls and Teo DuVall

cover of Brooms

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Brooms is a YA graphic novel created by Jasmine Walls (writer) and Teo DuVall (illustrator) and published in 2023 by Levine Querido. It is set in an alternate 1930s Mississippi where magic flows all around, but is heavily restricted. Only certain people are allowed to learn certain types of magic to be used only in certain situations, with offenders punished by having their magical abilities locked away. Native American children showing magical abilities are rounded up and sent to government schools where they can learn “proper magic”. 

Despite the law’s best efforts, there’s one type of magical activity that continues to thrive: underground broom racing. Every weekend, teams of thrill seekers meetup to see who can take home the prize money for being the best. One such team is the Night Storms. Led by their captain Billie Mae, the team includes her best friend Loretta, Cheng Kwan, Mattie, and Emma. Together, they hope to make enough money to make their dreams come true.     

The greatest strength of Brooms is its worldbuilding. The setting of a magical 1930s Mississippi feels unique as it’s not a setting that has often been explored. By emphasizing history accuracy, Jasmine Walls shines a light on the queer communities that existed at that time but have long been ignored. The diversity of characters is also phenomenal. Mattie and Emma are mixed Black and Choctaw. Luella, their cousin who introduces them to the rest of the team, is mixed Choctaw and Mexican. Cheng Kwan is transgender and Chinese American. Emma is Deaf and speaks Indian Sign Language. Billy Mae and Loretta are Black and suffer from chronic illness and disability. Billie Mae and Luella are in a relationship with one another. Other broom racing teams include characters who are nonbinary, amputees, or come from other cultural backgrounds. Through this diversity, Jasmine Walls succeeds in showcasing people who have long been underrepresented in the media, including fantasy media. It gives every queer, BIPOC, and disabled reader the chance to see themselves as a part of the magical community of Brooms

Brooms also does a great job of developing its main characters and their relationships. The main cast is fairly large, consisting of the five racers and Luella. Through a combination of the main story and flashbacks, we get to see how this small chosen family came to be and how they continue to support each other. Luella and Billie Mae also get these really sweet moments together that show how deep their love for each other is. This made for characters and relationships that felt fully fleshed out. I was able to feel a strong connection with each and every one of them. It also made it harder for me to put the book down. I just had to know how their stories ended! 

I appreciate how Jasmine Walls was able to convey an overall hopeful tone while also clearly conveying the danger the characters are facing. Throughout the novel we are shown the very imminent threat that the girls and their community are under without ever slipping into a darker tone. We see racism and oppression, but never in its full brutality. These scenes are balanced with ones that show that, despite that oppression, the characters’ spirits never falter. They continue to support each other and their community in the face of overwhelming bigotry. To me, this feels like the perfect balance to aim for in a YA graphic novel. The people most likely reading this book may be dealing with real bigotry in their daily lives; they don’t always need to see it in their books too. They need hope and, in that regard, Brooms succeeds in giving them that. 

I found the story’s focus on the power of community incredibly resonant. Brooms isn’t a story about a group of people coming together to overthrow racist and bigoted power structures. Instead, it’s a story of how finding and building a supportive community can help people survive and thrive in spite of the dangers that surround them. It shows the reader that there is hope in community as long as its members stick together and look out for each other. It’s a message that we need more than ever. 

Brooms is also a really pretty graphic novel. The contrast between the earthy tones of the daytime scenes and the vibrant colors of the magical night races give these events a wondrous quality. It provides a nice contrast between a world that shuns non-White magic and one in which everyone is welcome and loved. The broom races also have this dynamic quality in their rendering that helps convey a sense of speed and danger, making for a thrilling read.

In the end, I enjoyed my time with Brooms. It is a well written and beautifully illustrated story that showcases the power of hope and strength of community. Through its historical setting and diverse cast, it highlights the simple fact that queer communities have always existed and will continue to exist into the future. It’s a message that every queer person, no matter their age, needs to hear.

A Belated Bi Awakening: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Imogen Scott has endless experience as a straight queer ally. Her friends are pan and bi, her sister is out, and she never misses a Pride Alliance meeting. While visiting her best friend Lili at college, who has her own little queer community, Imogen takes “supportive” a step further. She pretends to be Lili’s ex-girlfriend and bi. The longer she wears the label, the more she wonders if it fits… especially when she’s in the company of Lili’s new friend, Tessa. Can Imogen keep her story straight, or is she finally starting to see who’s staring at her in the mirror?

This recent streak of bi/sapphic YA books (One Last Stop, Perfect on Paper, and now this) has left me slain. It’s all too much. I am FEELING too much. Be still, thy bi heart.

In all seriousness, this is the exact story little baby bi me needed back in high school, and I’m so glad it’s on shelves for adolescent readers now. There’s SO MUCH to discuss: the themes of self-identity, friendship, and coming-of-age so perfectly layered to make Imogen so obviously (I had to) exactly who she is. Imogen’s “bunny” brain is a realistic mental chaos of self-doubt and queer questioning. Everyone assumes straight is the default, when really, it should be bi until proven otherwise. Most people aren’t given the chance to question their sexuality, to explore who they are, instead establishing themselves in a pre-determined box. I’ve been there, and Imogen’s constant questioning and confusion make her emotions all the more real. She questions if queerness looks a certain way, or if we’re supposed to have our queer awakenings by a certain time, or if we’re supposed to be certain, but how could we with the constant DISCOURSE over everything? Imogen’s voice leaps off the page, making her easy to like; a character you want to follow to the end. Lili is everything as a best friend (and queer mentor), while Gretchen so perfectly straddles the line between well-meaning and toxic. We’ve all had that friend we realized (almost too little, too late) wasn’t looking out for our best interests, the one in the back of your head spinning every worst fear until it became a play-it-on repeat thought. Though she could have felt too extreme, we see why Imogen hears Gretchen out, why Imogen gives her a second chance, allowing her to become the cranked-up monster of self-doubt in Imogen’s head. Also, The Owl House, One Last Stop, and Sailor Moon mentions were everything.

This had an awkward start for me, namely because of all the names and identities we’re given in the first few chapters. It felt like Imogen’s younger, queer sister was less of a character and more of a plot piece (both to prove that Imogen was surrounded by self-aware queers and to show what queerness looked like in Imogen’s eyes). She doesn’t have some cute scenes with Imogen until the end, and by that point, I wanted more.

Recommended for fans of Perfect on Paper and One Last Stop.

The Vibes

❤️ Young Adult
❤️ Queer Cast
❤️ Bisexual FMC
❤️ College/Coming-of-Age
❤️ Identity
❤️ Romance & Friendship

💬 Quotes

❝ The only way to let someone into your reality is to retell it. ❞

❝ One girl can’t topple your entire sexuality, right? ❞

❝ All these moments, scattered and separate. All these disconnected dots. ❞

❝ Then she buries her face in the crook of my neck, and every breath she breathes feels like a love letter. ❞

❝ How I felt. Dizzy, off- balance, unsteady. Like my bones were too big for my body. Like I couldn’t zip myself closed. Like I’d colored outside my own outline, stepped out of frame, made myself three- dimensional. ❞

Identity Crisis via Teleportation: Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby

Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby cover

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Content warnings: violence, death

A note: I listened to the audiobook of Star Splitter. It’s a good one, but may have led to misspellings in this review.

Let’s say you lost all memories of the past three days. You’re still you, right? You’re just you minus a few days. You’re still the same person in the same body.

But what if you weren’t?

What if a body died with those memories, but an older version of you remained—would you still be you? Would the dead body be you, and would you have died?

These sorts of questions define Star Splitter by Matthew J Kirby. To explore the universe, humanity uses a sort of teleportation that uploads a person’s data and sends it lightyears in a matter of days. The person’s data is stored, and they can be re-downloaded, or updated based on their new experiences. That person might have their data uploaded, live several years, and then have the data sent home.

Before I give too many spoilers, let me just say that this is a book well worth the read for any science fiction fan. It engages consistently with deep, thematic wonderings while telling a story of space travel and disaster. It has characters a reader can easily hate one moment and sympathize with the next. If you’re on the fence about reading this book, go and do it! Don’t let my review take any surprises away!

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (Before) on a ship, but her parents are delayed. The ship’s crew is less than thrilled with a sulky teen. It’ll be okay when her parents arrive, though. Right?

The book is about Jessica Mathers, a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to cross the universe and become her parents’ research assistant. She wakes up (After) in a crashed lander on an alien planet. There are signs someone else is here. Graves, too. Someone else is better than being alone, though. Right?

I rarely encounter a book that so thoroughly uses its genre to explore a theme. Questions of identity, experience, and loss of one’s self are personal and universal at once. The book affected me while I read it; I cared deeply for the outcome of the story and the fate of the character(s). Throughout the dual timelines, I got to know Jessica twice. I started to ask myself which was “the real” Jessica, if there was one, if both could make it, and what outcome I could possibly hope for. It was an intense read!

When it comes to men writing queer women, I’ve seen mixed results. Some are honestly pretty awful, some well-intentioned but wide of the mark. This one is a bulls-eye. The society portrayed is queer-normative, with no coming out, and an adult lesbian couple is among the supporting cast. Jessica has an unrequited crush on a girl called Avery, someone with a wicked unicorn costume, a bit of an awkward streak, and not too much ego. Jessica is just the right amount of smitten. She thinks fondly of Avery, imagines telling her the truth, jokingly names a constellation after her. Jessica is a lot of things—she needs to be, for the themes to work. She’s proud, petty, determined, loving, childish… she’s a lot. Being queer is a piece of that complex identity.

I can see how this wouldn’t appeal to some readers—not everyone enjoys sci-fi, and Jessica is a realistic character, which means sometimes she’s hard to like, though that is the point in this case. If those are not deal-breakers for you, then I strongly recommend Star Splitter.

A Sapphic and Metis Secret Garden: Into the Bright Open by Cherie Dimaline 

Into the Bright Open cover

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Into the Bright Open by Cherie Dimaline is part of MacMillan’s Remixed Classics series, which has diverse authors reimagine beloved classics through their own perspective. In this offering, Dimaline remixes The Secret Garden, setting it in Canada and filling it with Metis characters and budding sapphic romance but keeping many of the elements from the original. I appreciated that this was not just a copy/paste job on the original, but its own story that is willing to use the original as a base to stand on its own terms as well, and I found this a very fun read that I think today’s readers will appreciate. 

This is still the curmudgeonly Mary Lennox we know and love. Sent to her Uncle’s house, she is appalled by the wilderness, the servants, and her new circumstances. But Sophie, a young Metis girl, is a Dickon-like character but not Dickon. She is as enthralled by Mary’s mind as Mary is by the things Sophie introduces her to in the outdoors. And Olive, Mary’s cousin who is confined to the attic, is in much more dire straits than Colin in the novel. With the addition of a wicked stepmother, Into the Bright Open has less of the quiet interiority of The Secret Garden, but the girls are still driven to make their own paths as they fight for their own space and to rescue Olive from her attic. I was a little bit taken aback by the changes at first, but once I accepted them as part of a remix, I had a good time. 

Given that Sophie is perfectly willing to haul Mary all around the landscape outside, the walled garden they tend is more about giving scope to their burgeoning relationship than about bringing the garden back to life. This is a book that really captured that moment of looking at another girl and going “oh” as that moment of queer realization hits, and it also captured Mary’s growth into someone willing to take direct action and put in work rather than wait for things to be done for her. Mary’s lack of role models of any type in her life rather works in her favor here, as she has been left to her own devices so much that her gradual realizations of her feelings are marked mostly by normal adolescent confusion rather than societal expectations. The way her and Sophie grow into each other as they spend more and more time together was very cute.

In conclusion, Into the Bright Open is an excellent addition to this remixed classics series. Whether you are already a Secret Garden fan or only vaguely know the story, Into the Bright Open is an engaging and cute read to start your spring off with. It stands up on its own, but it also provides an interesting view of remixing a classic through a different lens, and frankly, more historical sapphic YA is never a bad thing. 

A Southern Gothic Coming of Age: Something Kindred by Ciera Burch

Something Kindred by Ciera Burch cover

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When I picked this up, I was expecting a horror novel. And that makes sense, because it does have a lot of ghosts in it. But the ghosts are more a part of the setting than the plot; while they’re literally present in the town, their significance in the story is on the metaphorical side. I think “Gothic” is more fitting as a genre categorization.

We’re following Jericka, who has been bouncing from place to place her whole life as her mom kept uprooting the two of them. Now, she’s spending the summer helping to take care of her grandmother as she dies of cancer. What makes this a lot more complicated is that Gram walked out on Jericka’s mother and uncle when they were children — leaving them alone with their abusive father.

One thing I appreciated about Jericka is that she doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. When she meets her Gram, she asks her directly why she left her kids and why she reached out when she got sick. This is not one of those books where you wish the characters would just talk to each other — if anything, there are times when it would benefit Jericka to stop and think about what she’s going to say for a minute before lashing out.

This is a quick read, and the writing can feel a little… sparse at times. Like Jericka, the author gets directly to the point in a way that can feel abrupt. But the strength of this story is in its characterization and relationships. The three generations of women in that house all have complicated relationships to each other—Jericka soon finds out some secrets about her own childhood that are hard to grapple with. There are no easy answers here. Jericka begins to build a relationship with her grandmother even knowing that there is no way for Gram to make up for the damage she’s done to her children. She also starts to see her father and his wife, who she’s only communicated with through the occasional phone call and birthday card.

Then there’s Jericka’s complicated romantic life. She has a boyfriend back home, James, and their relationship is… comfortable. She loves him, but she doesn’t know if she wants to try to continue their relationship long distance when they go to university. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a girl in Clearwater: Kat. Kat is the only one who talks about the ghosts in town. She’s not popular, but she has a fiercely loyal best friend who will defend her at all costs. She talks a mile a minute and makes a terrible iced hot chocolate. I appreciated that Kat was multifaceted and flawed, not just a perfect love interest. Jericka has been out as bisexual for years, so her struggle choosing between James and Kat has more to do with her fears about the future than any worry about what it means for her identity.

I suppose I should actually talk about the ghosts, but it doesn’t surprise me that it took me this long to get to them. The characters and their complex relationships — especially family relationships — are the stars here. The ghosts, usually called echoes, are the manifestation of a central tension in Jericka’s story: the choice between putting down roots and always being on the run. The people in Coldwater seem unable to leave this town, but Jericka is tired of constantly moving. The echoes are the ghosts of the women who died when the old schoolhouse burned down, and they implore residents to never leave.

Of course, this is also a story about grief and loss. Jericka is building a relationship with her grandmother knowing that soon Gram will be dead. Jericka decides that although this is extremely painful, and although she can’t forgive Gram for what she did, she doesn’t want to continue the family tradition of silence and disconnection. She’d rather reach out even with all of that history between them.

I wouldn’t recommend this for readers looking for a terrifying horror read, but if you are a fan of family sagas and coming of age stories set against a gothic backdrop—with a few creepy scenes—I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Two Takes On Intersectional #MeToo YA Lit: What Works and What Doesn’t

Trigger warnings (apply to both books): sexual assault, grooming, minor instances of racism (mostly microaggressions)

Trigger warnings (Missing Clarissa): kidnapping, gun violence

Trigger warnings (For Girls Who Walk Through Fire): ableism, supernatural violence

This past month, I read two books that struck me as remarkably similar. Both were multiple perspective YA books that dealt with themes of sexual assault, justice, and intersectionality. While Young Adult has always had its books willing to tackle difficult and sensitive issues, these two belong to a new wave of intersectional, #MeToo-era lit that is still defining itself as a sub-genre. I will use these two titles as samples to look at what works and what doesn’t with a specifically queer perspective, but also considering each book as a whole.

Missing Clarissa cover

Missing Clarissa by Ripley Jones is a Nancy Drew story for the 21st century. It follows Cameron and Blair as they create an investigative podcast focusing on a 20-year-old disappearance from their hometown. Cam is the primary main character: big, bold, and messy, she’s all heart and impulse and is very much the driving force behind the narrative. Secondary main character Blair is thoughtful and insecure. As the two investigate Clarissa’s disappearance, they must confront personal bias and journalistic ethics.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose is The Craft meets Promising Young Woman. It focuses on Elliott, a victim of sexual assault who forms a coven with other victims to seek revenge on their attackers. As the girls dedicate themselves to this path, they find that it takes a toll on them in return and ultimately learn that revenge and healing are two very separate things.

Let’s start with queer content. Each book features a queer POV character who comes out during the story. In Missing Clarissa, it’s Cam, who becomes awkward around her crush and usually finds some reason to walk away like the teenage disaster that she is. Their relationship is a little rushed, but it’s sweet, and it fits with this character who throws herself headfirst into everything she deems worth her while. The humor in the book hit home for me. When Cam comes out to her mom and to Blair, both reply that they kind of knew—the Megan Rapinoe wall was a pretty big clue from a girl who doesn’t like soccer!

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose cover

In For Girls Who Walk Through Fire, it’s Bea. Bea mentions once getting butterflies in her stomach around a girl, Bea later comes out to her friends, and finally Bea is given a passing mention that her family accepts her. Otherwise, we see nothing else of Bea’s queerness; we don’t see her tell her parents, experience attraction, feel represented by other queer women (perhaps because she doesn’t encounter or seek out any). “Good” representation can be subjective. However, I think both the shallowness of the representation itself and Bea’s role in the story make this feel like the author wanted to be inclusive, but didn’t take time to become understanding. Bea is not the main character—that’s Elliott. She isn’t the primary foil—that’s Madeline. It seemed like she was queer only to make a comment on the misconception that a person can be “turned” by sexual assault. This incredibly harmful misconception deserves commentary, but the inclusion here feels more like an effort to be comprehensive than genuine. If the book didn’t have that line, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I thought that was the metatextual reason Bea was gay, in the interest of the book more comprehensively commenting on girls’ experiences of sexual assault. However, Bea’s sexuality was given far less page time than Bea’s experiences as a Black girl or Chloe’s experiences as an adoptee or Elliott’s experiences in a single-parent household. It felt like, in an effort to include as broad a range as possible, the author had to leave some experiences under-developed. I wish she had chosen to represent a few experiences well rather than making this broad, albeit very well-intentioned, effort to include everyone.

This was further complicated because Bea loves Harry Potter. All things in context: loving Harry Potter isn’t a red flag in many circumstances. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is so determinedly intersectional that centering the works of a prominently transphobic author in the queer character’s narrative makes a resonant statement. Bea’s queer, thus queerness is included; the most prominent queer character has a close, comfortable relationship to this book by an author who actively opposes trans rights. I’m not trans, but on behalf of my trans siblings, this made me uncomfortable.

Inclusivity is another matter worth considering in these books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire wants you to know how inclusive it is. Only… is it? Yes, two of the supposed main characters are girls of color, but they’re the most underdeveloped main characters who are victims of assault first, and victims of racism second, and people… somewhere in there, I guess. The characters had little personality—and that could be okay. It’s fine to write from a single perspective. But that is not the approach this book takes. It tries to show the lives of all four girls in the coven. Because two of the four supposedly main characters are poorly developed, it feels perfunctory.

In Missing Clarissa, main character Cam is Latina and her love interest is First Nations. Though microaggressions occasionally occur and are addressed, this novel falls squarely into the category of inclusive, not representative—and I see nothing wrong with that. I believe we need books that center questions of identity and books that feature characters who are incidentally diverse, whether that is with regard to race, queerness, or any other category. Writers can include an underrepresented character without defining them by their traits rather than their personhood. Cam is impulsive, determined, well-meaning but terrible at thinking through to the consequences of her actions. She’s caring but insensitive. Bea is anxious. And Black. And gay. And there’s little else to describe about her because most of her page time is dedicated to this shallow approach to inclusivity.

When it comes to disability, too, one book is clearly more thoughtful. Cam from Missing Clarissa is ADHD-coded. Not often one to think before she acts, she often stumbles and, near the end of the book, makes a massive mistake that will have any other impulse-challenged readers like myself wincing in recognition. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire treats disability as a punishment. Literally. Many of the spells inflicted on the rapists amount to making them disabled. Again, context matters: it’s not that the boy is blind, for example, but that he is losing his basketball scholarship because he’s blind. But one instance stands out. Elliott hears about another witch whose attacker is no longer able to control his bladder and walks with a shuffle, and has a moment of essentially wishing to seek him out and laugh at him. This comes from a place of victimhood, but still stings as a disabled reader.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire deals in dichotomies of power. The dichotomy throughout the narrative is usually between male and female—all the coven members are girls who were assaulted by boys or men. Their attackers enjoy more social and physical power in a world that centers masculinity. When their magic doles out punishments, it often renders their attackers disabled, letting the girls feel stronger. They are now experiencing the world not for which gender is centered, but for how ability is centered. If this had been handled better, the parallels acknowledged of the different social strata, I could have appreciated it. But it’s not. Instead, disability is, by implication, associated with weakness and cruelty.

I don’t mind revenge stories. I’ve watched the entire Saw series, which is a hot mess about a sadistic torturer/killer called Jigsaw who puts people in ironic traps. For Girls Who walk Through Fire could take a few notes. When Jigsaw forces a man to blind himself, it’s both horrific torture and explicitly tied to his voyeurism. When the book does it, well, yes, the boy posted revenge porn, a despicable act. But without the parallels drawn explicitly and within the context of other disabilities “inflicted”, it sends a clear message that being disabled is somehow indicative of immorality.

How do these two books discuss sexual assault? In both cases, with tact. We see the histories of the girls who walk through fire, and each is presented as traumatic and devastating. In Missing Clarissa, Cam and Blair discover that a powerful man has a history of abusing his position to prey on young women. Though they seek out the victims, they recognize what is and is not their story to tell. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire shows how assaults are confusing and horrible for those who experience them; Missing Clarissa shows how outsiders can approach the subject with respect.

Finally, I want to consider the messaging of these two books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is a split: half is about revenge, half is about healing. And the revenge is shown to physically poison the coven. At the same time, healing, acknowledging trauma, and coming together is shown as the right course. To me, this felt exceptionally empty, largely as a consequence of the book’s other failings. The characters being poorly developed made them difficult to identify with. Maybe this would be cathartic for victims of assault and I don’t mean to diminish that, but I can only speak for myself, and I felt no investment in these girls. Ultimately, having a character-focused ending without well-developed characters feels hollow. Not only that, the book makes sure to mention failures of the justice system, which is representative of real life… and a further problem. If the message is that seeking revenge won’t help, the justice system won’t help, but victims can find strength through their shared trauma, then the message becomes, yes, some, perhaps many, women will be assaulted, but they’ll find a way to be okay. It’s true, I suppose. But it also seems to put too much responsibility on victims. Similarly, I found it frustrating that each victim was determinedly innocent-coded. Though it acknowledges that women are blamed for their assaults, it doesn’t feature any victims who were drinking, were promiscuous, were doing anything that might earn them social blame. It felt like the narrative was afraid or unwilling to humanize those girls. To become powerful, they have to be victims—the right victims—and they must be, of course, victimized. A hollow and unsatisfying final note disguised as a victory.

Missing Clarissa has a much narrower focus, and because of that, is a much stronger book. It’s about media responsibility, as told through the story of two girl who start a podcast. And yes, one is a queer, neurodivergent Latina who needs to temper her enthusiasm. And yes, one is a shy girl who finds her voice. All of that happens along the way. Most importantly to me, Missing Clarissa knows that life is messy. It knows that people are messy. It knows that human beings can be mean and petty and that doesn’t make us evil, and sometimes, even if you were completely right and your risks found justice, you have to face the consequences of your actions. It’s a more morally complex narrative, for that, a much more satisfying one.

I hope I’ve shown here how similar yet different these two books are. I hadn’t realized I was dipping twice into this budding subgenre, and was struck by how well one book told its story and how poorly another did. Sometimes less is more; often, authors achieve better results by not trying to do everything. I’m glad I read both. But I would only recommend one, and I think you know it’s Missing Clarissa. I look forward to seeing how the story continues in its sequel!

Teen Witches Cover Up a Murder: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey cover

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Alexis and her five friends share a secret—they all have magic powers. On prom night, Alexis’s magic goes wrong and a boy ends up dead. Now, the six teens have to keep this a secret as they try to make things right. Bonds are tested in ways they never thought could happen.

The friend group dynamic helps keep Sarah Gailey’s When We Were Magic rooted in reality. Alexis as a main character can be frustrating, even considering this is a young adult novel, so teenagers are bound not to make the smartest decisions. However, it’s all balanced by the relationships between the friends within the group. Every girl has a unique relationship with one another, making for fascinating tension, push and pull.

It’s also nice to see such a diverse cast of characters representing identities such as adoptee, mixed race, Muslim, lesbian, nonbinary and more. Even with an ensemble cast of six characters, Gailey does a deft job of developing each enough to ensure no one falls by the wayside. Each girl has a distinctive personality, and they’re all strong personalities, which is part of what makes their friendship dynamic so fun.

Their magic powers also highlight the dynamic of the friends and each one’s personality. Each girl seems to have a specialty, like Alexis has a connection with animals—dogs and canines, mostly. Iris seems to have taken on the role of a pseudo-leader, as she appears to be the most powerful, or at least the one with the most control of her magic. She’s the one who studies it closely, trying to unravel the mysteries of their powers.

That’s an interesting point in the world-building for this book. It’s never clear the origins of their magic and why they have it. You just jump straight into the middle of the narrative where they all already know they have magic and they found each other.

TRIGGER WARNING: BLOOD AND GORE

For those who do not stomach the macabre well, this part of the book may make you feel squeamish. When Alexis accidentally kills Josh, it’s a pretty nasty sight. The subsequent magic that happens as each friend tends to his different body parts also causes the stomach to turn. It’s rather amazing how well these teenagers handle such a traumatic experience as they try to “put him back together,” so to speak.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

Although Alexis and her friends appear to treat Josh’s death with nonchalance as they attempt to fix things, it’s clear there are consequences to this magic. There’s added pressure when another student outside their coven discovers their secret and threatens to turn them in to the police for having something to do with the disappearance of Josh.

Of course, all the while, regular teen drama unfolds and causes more tension. In fact, it becomes clear that this mundane drama was the catalyst for the magical catastrophe. Alexis is clearly in love with her best friend Roya; everyone is sick of them dancing around each other. But it also brings about more nuance to Alexis and her sexuality.

Even though Alexis is adopted by two fathers who are clearly in a queer marriage, she still hasn’t come out to them or her friends. She hasn’t even come out to herself because she isn’t sure if bisexual is the right word for what she is. She knows she’s queer but is still questioning what that means to her. When she finally does come out, it’s more of an, “I thought everyone already knew,” situation.

I won’t spoil how it ends, but I will say it was not what I expected. I don’t think I was disappointed by the ending, but I don’t feel that it was satisfactory after all the stakes and investment the reader puts into it. I still really enjoyed it, though, especially the audiobook version narrated by Amanda Dolan. This perhaps added another layer of depth than reading it in a physical copy would have. I still think it was worth the read, even if the ending left me wanting.

Trigger warnings: body horror, blood and gore

A Swashbucking Sword Lesbian Graphic Novel: The Marble Queen by Anna Kopp & Gabrielle Kari

The Marble Queen cover

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The Marble Queen is a new sapphic YA fantasy graphic novel by Anna Kopp (writer) and Gabrielle Kari (illustrator) published by Dark Horse Comics. I’ve been excited to read this book since it was announced. As someone who loves both sapphic romance and comics/graphic novels, it felt right up my alley. While I still enjoyed the book and can see how people could fall in love with it, it ended up not working for me as well as I would have liked. 

It is a dire time for the Kingdom of Marion. Having just lost most of their fleet to pirates and running short of options, the kingdom needs allies quick. Seeing the suffering of her people, Princess Amelia offers herself to be married off to secure an alliance with another kingdom. Even though her parents allow her to choose between potential suitors, she tells them that she will marry the highest bidder. She assumes that is Prince Mateo of the mysterious kingdom of Iliad. However, she later discovers that she is not betrothed to the Prince, but rather his sister, the newly crowned Queen Salira. Salira needs the marriage in order to secure supplies for her own nation as well as cement her status as queen. As Amelia begins to fall in love with the queen and help her administer the kingdom, she discovers a conspiracy seeking to usurp Salira and plunge the nation into war.  

Gabrielle Kari’s art is the standout aspect of this book and adds great depth to the story and characters. I loved Amelia’s character design, from her hair to all the beautiful dresses she wears, while Salira is the tall sword lesbian in a uniform that makes me swoon. Their contrasting styles also highlight the cultural differences Amelia has to face as she adjusts to her new kingdom. These differences are emphasized again with the contrast between the muted and generic look of Marion and the vibrant colors and architecture of Iliad. Kari’s use of different visual tools during Amelia’s anxiety dreams made her emotional struggles in the book feel more visceral. Gabrielle Kari uses these and other smaller visual features in the book to maximum effect to draw readers in and make them truly feel what the characters are going through.

In terms of the story, I found it to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed Amelia’s arc of coming to terms with her queerness and her role in this new foreign land. I liked Salira’s arc of learning what it means to be queen and how their struggles with anxiety were portrayed. I even found aspects of the political plot lines to be interesting. Still, I feel like both Salira’s and Amelia’s arcs got pushed too far to the side in the third act as the political narrative took over. Some aspects of their stories were even completely abandoned. There were still great character moments for both of them as the story moved towards its conclusion, but it still wasn’t enough for me. I would have liked to have seen more of the inter- and intrapersonal stories and less on the politics of the world. 

Despite these shortcomings, I still enjoyed my time with The Marble Queen and would recommend it to queer YA graphic novel readers. It’s a beautifully illustrated and fun book with lots of sweet moments between its two romantic leads. If you are someone who wants your queer YA graphic novel to lean less on the melodramatic and more on swashbuckling fantasy with pretty women with swords, then you will really enjoy this book.