Maggie reviews Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

the cover of Siren Queen

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In Siren Queen, Nghi Vo brings to old Hollywood a fascinating premise: What if the magic of the silver screen was actually magic? What if the studio system literally owned everything, from looks to talent to one’s very name? Nghi Vo spins out a shadowy, dangerous world filled with fey magic and dangerous deals, where every movie is a chance at literal immortality or complete destruction. It’s lushly imagined, a fully-fleshed world full of dark corners and terrible consequences, and I loved every page of it. Nghi Vo delivers on magic, glamor, and the desperate underground queer love of the era in a thrilling journey where every gift comes at a terrible price.

Luli knows the dangers of the Hollywood Studios, but the lure of the silver screen is in her blood from the moment she sees her first picture and she’ll do whatever she must to become a star. She also knows that a Chinese American girl from a poor neighborhood has even fewer avenues to stardom than most of the hopefuls that swan through the studios. Through cunning, a little bit of knowledge, and luck, Luli claws her way into a chance with a studio and lays out her terms. She won’t play maids, she won’t talk funny, and she won’t play a fainting flower for every leading man to discard for someone whiter and blonder. Her refusal to back down makes the power that runs the studios furious, but Luli is determined to hold onto what she can, even as she’s forced to concede her name, her background, even her relationships. If she won’t play a maid, and they won’t let her play a leading lady, Luli finds the role left to her is monster, and it’s up to her to embrace it.

What I loved most about this book was the glamour and scandal of Pre-Code Hollywood is enhanced but not overshadowed by the mystical. The Hunt may ride once a year, but in the meantime, everyone is in fierce competition for access to the best scripts, the best roles, and the best connections. Luli goes into the dangers with her eyes wide open, but the lure of becoming a star is too much for her to resist.  Luli also grapples with the limits the studios impose on her versus the importance of being seen as a Chinese American star. It also reveals the thriving but underground queer scene of the era. While the studios literally matchmake and arrange marriages for their stars for maximum marketing potential, Luli discovers the trick of navigating between a public persona and private relationships through a series of girlfriends, underground clubs, and meeting with other queer actors. Luli’s queer relationships are both shaped by the omnipresent pressure of the studio system she lives in and one of the major parts of her life that are hers and not for publicity, and as she realizes she has more to lose, she also learns what she is willing to compromise about herself.

In conclusion, I loved this detailed, gorgeous trip through Pre-Code Hollywood, where both the beauty and the danger are greater than ever. Luli is a ruthless and yet complex main character, existing at the nexus of a number of different worlds, and she kicks and struggles to have the life she wants. Any one of Hollywood with magic, a Chinese American actress struggling to make a name for herself, or undercover queer culture in Hollywood would be interesting, and Nghi Vo masterfully mixes them all together for one unforgettable book. I definitely do not regret picking this one up.

Kelleen reviews Patience & Esther by SW Searle

the cover of Patience & Esther by SW Searle

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I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book. I don’t know why I never see this book discussed whenever folks are talking about historical romance, or graphic novels, or the greatest sapphic graphic novel historical romance (is that a genre?) novels ever crafted. 

To be honest, I’m not big on graphic novels (I have a learning disability and read mostly with my ears, so graphic novels don’t always work for my brain), so it never occurred to me that I need a romance novel with pictures. I have a great imagination! And I love narration! And isn’t it maybe weird to write sexy scenes in graphic novel form? But alas, this book is exactly what I needed and so much more. 

This interracial erotic historical Edwardian romance graphic novel (whew, lots of adjectives) tells the story of two women working in service in England—one an Indian lady’s maid and one a new Scottish maid of all work—as they fall in love and navigate a changing world of industry and identity at the turn of the century. It is domestic and comforting and beautiful and I simply could not get enough.

It is so deeply romantic, and so steamy (there are historical sex toys)! The illustrations are exquisite and beautifully detailed, and show real, beautiful bodies. One of the heroines is fat and is drawn with rolls and stretch marks, and it was such a profound experience for me to see a body like that (a body like mine) being loved and desired and sexy in illustrations along with text. 

Because of the identities of the heroines as Indian, Scottish, working class, and sapphic, there was so much interesting conversation about how these women fit into the social political movements of the time. We see the racism, classism, and exclusivity of the Suffragists Movement and the way that the horrors of colonialism strip people of their names, families,  cultures, and identities. The exploration of the changing social and political atmosphere at such an integral, fast-paced time in history was so engaging and was intertwined so well with captivating the emotional span of the romance. 

One thing that I really loved about the romance is that these two are always on each other’s side. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hard and emotional and conflict-ridden and romantic, but these two are such a good team, fighting for each other and for their relationship every step of the way. 

This book is literally everything I love. It’s like a steamy, sapphic Downton Abbey, and my heart was going pitter-pat the whole time I was reading. I cannot recommend this genre-bending book enough. If you are a sapphic reader (or a reader of sapphics, whichever), pick up this book. You will be charmed, you will be delighted, you will be swooned and amazed and intrigued and you will not be sorry. 

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Rachel reviews Small Angels by Lauren Owen

the cover of Small Angels

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Dark, Gothic, and atmospheric, Lauren Owen’s new novel Small Angels (August 2022) is perfect for fans of spooky queer fiction and it’s out just in time for autumn! This book is definitely one to add to your Halloween TBR. 

Small Angels begins in a small English village with a story that unfolds across decades—or centuries. In the present day, Chloe has looked forward to her wedding to Sam for months, and to her there is no more perfect place to hold the ceremony than at the local village church, Small Angels, in the place where Sam and his sister Kate, grew up. But Small Angels is no ordinary church, and the residents of the village know to stay away. Soon, the locals recount harrowing stories of violent hauntings and dark rituals associated with the church and the infamously reclusive Gonne family who tended it, and what’s worse, Chloe begins to see and hear things she can’t begin to explain. 

At the same time, Sam’s sister Kate has been reluctantly drawn home for her brother’s wedding. Narrating her memories, Small Angels and the nearby Gonne family estate hold many painful memories. Escaping her parents’ fighting as a teenager, Kate was drawn into the lives of the four Gonne sisters and their complex relationship with Small Angels. She learns that the woods behind Small Angels are home to a malicious and unsettled ghost whose violent death has led him to haunt the woods and the Gonne estate. For generations, the Gonne’s have appeased the ghost and prevented him from attacking the villagers beyond the woods, but a terrible event disrupts the tentative harmony of the Gonne’s and the ghost. 

Chloe’s wedding begins to awaken something in the woods beyond Small Angels, and if Kate and the one remaining Gonne sister can’t stop it, there’s no telling what might happen. 

Although the plot of this book seems complex, Owen unfolds Small Angels beautifully. There is a lyrical, unsettling quality to the novel that threads together a number of events and perspectives in a way that I found engaging and intriguing. Owen develops the world of the novel slowly, framing the events around an isolated English village as both out of time and place, and yet vividly real nonetheless. 

The ghostly mystery and paranormal action of this novel make it a perfect read for fall, and Small Angels strikes an excellent balance between literary fiction and horror writing. Each of the characters was effectively drawn, and multiple perspectives allowed for a thorough representation of the world in this novel and all of its intricacies. I felt as though the pacing of this book left me unable to put it down, and I finished Small Angels in a matter of days. I highly recommend this book for fans of Alix E. Harrow, V.E. Schwab, or Julia Armfield. 

Not to mention, this is a queer novel! I haven’t seen that aspect of this text as widely talked about (probably due to my own failing), and I didn’t know when I started reading that the novel would be partially centered around a lesbian love story, but it was a pleasant surprise and a very happy discovery. I highly recommend Small Angels as a spooky read for any time of the year, and I’ll definitely be reading Lauren Owen’s fiction from now on. 

Please add Small Angels to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Lauren Owen on Twitter.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Meagan Kimberly reviews A Lot Like Adiós by Alexis Daria

A Lot Like Adiós cover

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Gabe and Michelle had been best friends since childhood. As they grew into teenagers, their feelings took a turn toward romantic, but before they did anything about it, Gabe left.

Over 10 years later, Michelle works as a freelance marketing specialist in the Bronx and Gabe owns a gym in LA, and they haven’t had contact since he left, until now. Gabe makes a return to New York to work with Michelle on a marketing campaign to open a new branch of the gym. Emotions run high, lies become tangled and it’s time for both of them to face the past if they’re going to reach their happy ending.

This is a Latine story on every level. Sprinkled with Spanglish and Spanish throughout narration and dialogue, mentions of Puerto Rican and Mexican foods and their families being way too involved in their relationship all create a familiar environment for Latine readers. Gabe’s strained relationship with his parents is also a familiar situation that many children of immigrants can relate to and plays a central role in his character development. Throughout the novel, Gabe begins to untangle his old feelings and realize a great deal of miscommunication occurred between them.

Meanwhile, Michelle works toward untangling her relationship with work and burnout, especially as how those parts of her life act as a crutch to keep her from making meaningful relationships. As she reconnects with Gabe, she begins to let go of control and stop doubting herself and her abilities.

As the story unfolds, there are inserts of a fanfic Gabe and Michelle wrote together as teenagers called Celestial Destiny. They shared a love for a sci-fi TV show that finally gave them Latinos in space and then was canceled after only one season, a stituation too many of us are all too familiar with. But these inserts serve as a fantastical way to convey a lot of character development that Michelle and Gabe keep from one another and even themselves.

Bisexuality is dealt with subtly in this book. There’s a conversation early on between them where Michelle states, “Gabe, are you telling me we’re both bisexual?” They have a brief conversation about their past relationships regarding being bi and that’s the last you hear of it. It’s a different way for bisexuality to play a role in an f/m romance story than I’ve seen before. There’s never a big deal made about it. It’s addressed but it doesn’t make up the bulk of the plot or character development. But that doesn’t make these characters any less queer.

Within the little bit about the characters’ sexualities, however, there is more nuance given to Michelle. She speaks about dating people of different genders but never having sex with women. She doesn’t hide her sexual orientation from her family, but she doesn’t discuss her dating life with them either. It seems like she’s still getting comfortable with her bi identity.

For those who like their romance novels extra steamy, you’re in luck! A Lot Like Adiós includes lots of hot sex, dirty talk and wonderful examples of consent. Alexis Daria did a fantastic job of portraying a passionate relationship without shying away from sex, desire and pleasure, making it all guilt-free and without shame. It’s totally sex-positive,

Til reviews The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark

the cover of The Lock Eater

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The Lock-Eater tells the story of Melanie Gate, an orphan sent on an adventure with a gearling in a land of power-hungry wizards, invisible unicorns, humanoid animals, true friends, and cute seamstresses. This is a book that feels very aware of its adherence to the typical—the author definitely knows what he’s doing when he diverges from expectations. It’s clear from the beginning. Rather than happily sending away another worthless foundling, matron Mrs. Harbargain truly cares for Melanie and sends her off to become a witch’s apprentice only because she’s in a very tight situation. Even as readers embark on the journey alongside Melanie and Traveler, we see that there are good people in this world.

And what a world it is! There are generations of warfare and extortionate treaties woven into this book. There are magical beasts and the less-than-pleasant, delightfully realistic observation that living just below an aerie of gryphons means living just below an aerie’s worth of gryphon-sized poos. For all its lighthearted moments, the book has seriousness, too, including a small nation under colonial rule, the magical equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and far too many dosed cups of tea. The strongest consistent thread isn’t exploration or magic or even coming of age. It’s community. Sometimes Melanie has to solve tough problems on her own. Often she has support. Though she has a talent for magic, she’s not the only one, and she loves her friends for their talents, too. This novel pulls off “everyone’s special” so well.

So, what kind of queer representation can you expect? In my opinion, the perfect amount for a middle grade adventure. Melanie likes girls. Not only is that outright stated, she meets a seamstress who immediately takes away her powers of speech—not through magic, but a keenly relatable awkwardness! The crush is reciprocated and sweet. I don’t tend to enjoy overwhelming romances; usually, once it becomes more than ~35% of the story, it’s too much romance. That’s one of the things I like about middle grade fiction. Lock-Eater does a great job being a comfortable, supportive queer narrative that embraces the import of identity, with or without romance.

No disrespect intended to all the romance fans out there, of course!

The book also has some comments on gender and identity. They’re less centered, but undeniably present. Melanie is repeatedly judged for being a girl in a boy’s coat, but she loves its starry design and doesn’t care who it was “meant” for. She is not explicitly stated to be nonbinary, just refusing to be overly confined to societal expectations. Another character chooses a new name for herself late in the story. This is treated as extremely powerful. Her choice is honored. I’m not someone who can or would try to speak for the trans community, but as someone who has never felt entirely comfortable within gender norms, I found these little touches to be absolutely wonderful.

The Lock-Eater is a sweet adventure story about a magical world with a very human protagonist, and it isn’t afraid to explore emotional depths and darker outcomes.

Vic reviews Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

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I am still a relative newbie when it comes to horror, but Vincent Tirado’s Burn Down, Rise Up served as a fantastic entry point for me.  When Bronx high schooler Raquel’s mother falls into a coma with a mysterious illness on the same day that her crush’s cousin disappears, Raquel has no choice but to team up with her crush, Charlize, to save them both. In doing so, they learn of the deadly Echo Game, an urban legend based in the horrifying history of the city, and must put their knowledge as well as their survival skills to the test in order to make it out alive..

This book held my attention from beginning to end—I never wanted to put it down. Though it is a young adult novel, it does not hold back on the horror, the most significant being the real-life history that inspired the Echo. The Echo, we quickly learn, is born of the worst thing that happened in a particular location. The Bronx Echo, then, is filled with decaying buildings and people who are literally on fire, having lost their lives in the 1970s Bronx burning. In defining the Echo, Tirado skillfully weaves in the history of gentrification and redlining so that it feels natural and informative without simply stopping the narrative for a history lesson.

For all of the horror in this book, however, it is also brimming with love—between the individual characters, yes, but for the Bronx itself as well. That theme of community began right from the dedication, and it both raised the stakes and grounded the book in something positive, something hopeful.  When a horror story exists in something terrible, the goal is to simply survive, to get out; here, there was something to fight for, something to save.

As for the characters themselves, they shine. I would even go so far as to say Raquel might be one of my absolute favorite YA protagonists. She was clever and determined, and she felt like a real teenager with real teenage concerns on top of the life-or-death scenario she willingly enters to save the people she cares about. What I found particularly effective is that the book takes all of these parts of her seriously.  While Raquel worries about her mother and Charlize, she also reminds herself that her mother would not be happy if she woke up and found Raquel had let her grades all fall by the wayside, reinforcing the idea that she has a life outside of these dangers, that she should have a life beyond these dangers.

The relationships that drive the book are strong enough in their portrayal as to be believed. The familiar childhood crush who actually likes you back was adorable, but Charlize as a person was a lot more than simply an object of affection—a particularly impressive feat, considering she is in fact the center of a love triangle featuring both Raquel and Raquel’s best friend. As for the love triangle, it could very easily have become a distraction, but I thought it worked well enough, mostly because, again, Charlize was a strong enough character in her own right that it was easy to see why they liked her so much, but the love triangle always took a backseat to the actual threat to their lives.

My one complaint, nitpicky as it may be: the rules of the Echo seemed unclear in parts. I had to reread certain parts to see if I had misunderstood the rule or the scene, and writing this now, I am still not sure which it was. However, I want to be very clear that this was a minor detail that had no impact on the story itself or my overall enjoyment of it. Everything significant in this book is drawn so vividly that it made this one point stand out to me, but it is very likely other readers will miss it entirely.

Perhaps one of the biggest marks of success for a book is to encourage one to want to read more in its genre, which Burn Down, Rise Up has certainly achieved for me. For readers who are more familiar with horror, however, it is well worth a read on every level, from the frights of the Echo to the even more terrifying history that inspired it.

Sam reviews Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago

the cover of Robins in the Night

I first read Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago shortly after it came out in 2015. The literary landscape of lesbian fantasy novels was far scarcer even seven years ago than it is today; the YA publishing engine hadn’t yet realized the market it could exploit, and stumbling upon even a halfway decent book felt like finding buried treasure. Likewise, self-publishing was picking up steam but had not yet had its heyday—while I still think that self-publishing a novel requires an admirable level of audacity, in 2015 there were far fewer people who had actually taken that leap. So when word of a self-published, lesbian retelling of Robin Hood featuring a trans protagonist started going around, I went out of my way to borrow a family member’s Kindle so I could read it.

What I found charmed and surprised me in equal measure. Robins in the Night is hard to categorize. I can’t say that it isn’t a Robin Hood retelling, but if it is, it’s in the least possible way. It’s set in a fantasy version of England, but I couldn’t tell you in what time period or really much of anything much more specific about the setting. Consistent and detailed worldbuilding isn’t very important to Robins in the Night; it’s far more interested in fun wordplay, taking the piss out of men, and girls kissing. Oh, and also snails.

The novel tells the story of Marian Snoke, who is a thief. To most people, she is nothing; that is, until she falls in with the Hooded Council, an all-women group of thieves who use their ill-gotten gains to fund a refuge for the poor and downtrodden. The plot meanders its way forward from there, jumping from character to character, idling by moments and taking small diversions, pausing for intermissions and then suddenly leaping two steps ahead.

Rereading Robins in the Night now, what really struck me was just how young it feels. Every page dances with an energy both exuberant and clumsy. The book is just so excited to be here that it can hardly keep itself focused on any one story element for long. There’s a lot of inventively creative use of language in Robins in the Night, which ranges from cute to genuinely hilarious. The romance between Marian and Jemima in particular overflows with the disbelieving awe of gay young adults falling in love for the first time. In 2015, only a few years after I came out myself, it resonated deeply with my own recent experiences. Now, it’s a reminder of what it felt like to still be in the midst of figuring yourself out and finding love after being denied it for so long.

Youthful enthusiasm isn’t without its faults, of course. There are times that Robins in the Night feels hardly edited at all. Dajo Jago did not kill any of her darlings when writing her debut novel—though I can’t say that doesn’t make up a large part of its charm. What did bother me was several dips in tone that occur throughout the book, places where something hard and violent intrudes upon the largely light-hearted narrative. Which isn’t to say that Robins in the Night can’t or shouldn’t handle topics like death, maiming, and abuse of power—indeed, bigotry and prejudice are clearly important to the author and the story. But Robins in the Night clearly wants to be a happy kind of fairy tale, and it can feel a little jarring when it decides to dip into the grimmer reaches of that genre.

But despite any clumsiness that may arise from being a new author’s self-published work, Robins in the Night is most definitely worth a read—I even think it has the potential to be at least a few people’s new favorite book. I certainly enjoyed revisiting it…although I’m still not sure what’s so important about the snails.

Content Warnings: racism, transmisogyny, implied child abuse

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Nat reviews Her Royal Happiness by Lola Keeley

the cover of ​​Her Royal Happiness by Lola Keeley

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If there’s a perfect time to read about the English monarchy and all its drama, well, it’s probably right now. Her Royal Happiness is low on the angst without glossing over the big ticket issues. Classism, racism, colonialism—Keeley touches on them all, without ever delving too far into serious topics, because let’s be honest, we know how to turn on the news. Bringing up serious themes in this work feels more like a placeholder or an acknowledgement—let’s put a pin in this for another time, but right now, let’s read a kissing book. 

Not that I’m a big follower of the royal family’s comings and goings, but if you’ve seen any news at all in the last several years, you probably know a thing or two about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Let’s be real, Her Royal Happiness is pretty much the queer version of them, but with a squishy royal happy ending. Princess Alice is an Olympic medalist and two tour combat pilot with medals to show for it. Her father was killed in an accident when she was young, while he was running from paparazzi. Sound familiar? Sara is Persian, a single mother raising a child on a modest income in South London. She might not be an American actress, but the tension is mirrored in the form of class differences and her family background.

Sara’s mother fled from Iran to France, but ironically, her mother is not the one who has issues with the royal family and their colonizing ways. Our main character is not a fan of royalty, and not quiet in her criticism. Keeley does a good job at showing Princess Alice being aware of some issues around racism and classism, while pointing out that she’s still been living in a bubble and has some growth ahead of her. Sara notes things along the way that our posh Princess may not have considered, including her views on war, especially from the POV of a soldier of an invading country. Again, we don’t get too deep or dark, but the author keeps us aware that it’s not all corgis and sunshine at the palace. 

Autism and the need for education tailored to different children’s strengths is another key topic of this work. But for those of you who don’t particularly like reading romances featuring children, I’ll note that one thing I really appreciated is that although some of the conflict (not to mention the meet cute and much of the motivation) is centered around the kids, the kids’ points of view don’t feature heavily and there isn’t a lot of kid-centric description. 

Overall, Keeley masters the balance between real world issues and a modern fiction fairy tale. If you need a bit of a warm blanket in the next few months, or just want a bit of a do over of current events in the multi universe, here’s a good place to find it. 

The Lesbrary Goes To Flame Con 2022 — Anna N.

Let’s see if I can keep my rhapsodizing to a minimum. Because from the moment I walked into the conference hall, there was a vibrancy in the air. Everyone I encountered during Flame Con was absolutely unabashed in their sheer fannishness, wearing their fandoms on their backpacks, jackets, and jaw-dropping cosplays.

You know you’re in for a good time when the panelists themselves are decked out in geek chic.

PT I – Marginalization, Manga, and More Sapphic Stories

I kicked off my own explorations with a presentation where literary researcher Erica Friedman enthusiastically detailed the history of yuri manga, which was a solid start to the con, because I am hard-pressed to find a single illustrator/animator this side of forty who hasn’t been influenced by or intensely devoured anime and/or manga growing up.

the cover of By Your Side

The founder of Yuricon, Friedman has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, from its early, overly stylized manifestations to the more complex, nuanced stories that have been coming out (pun intended) in recent years. You can learn more details about this interesting, niche history in Friedman’s book By Your Side: The First 100 Years of Yuri Anime and Manga, in which she traces the evolution of the genre from the 1940s to today. The book has all the academic minutiae you’d expect from a seasoned researcher, and all the delightful musings you’d expect from a seasoned fan. A dry text this is not, and if you’ve been put off by the genre for its admitted overreliance on cheesy tropes and “lesbian content without lesbian identity”, Friedman’s book will both contextualize their histories as well as offering recommendations for some of the more innovative, subversive works*.

Speaking of anime and manga, I also stopped by Kat Calamia and Phil Falco’s table in the artist show room. They are the creative team behind one of my favorite sapphic webcomics, Slice of Life. A sort of reverse-isekai**, the plot begins when picture-perfect high school cheerleader Lucy wakes up to a loud scream in the middle of the night. Panicked, she runs into her little sister Ravyn’s room and sees that the protagonist from Ravyn’s favorite anime has come through the TV screen and is now the deuteragonist of her own, less-than-picturesque lesbian identity crisis.

To give Lucy credit, she is the blonde to Yuriko’s brunette. And if that statement confuses you, read Friedman’s book! Then read Slice of Life, because you’ll have a deeper understanding of all the tropes it so entertainingly subverts.

Yuriko’s name also has an interesting historical context. To quote from the Yuricon website: “yuri is Japanese for the lily. Hence…lesbians were yurizoku (百合族), the lily tribe. This name was taken by many hentai manga and doujinshi artists, who then named their lesbian characters “Yuri” or “Yuriko,” so that it became a kind of cliche’ for the genre itself.”

a photo of Anna and one of the writers of Slice of Life, holding up Slice of Life and Dancer. They're both wearing rainbow masks.

Thankfully, progress has brought the label into the less exploitative mainstream, where it has gone on to encompass interesting manga like Donuts Under a Crescent Moon and clever pastiches like Slice of Life. During our conversation, Calamia mentioned that she is currently working on another, darker project called The Dancer, which focuses more heavily on themes of mental health and has a gorgeous limited edition cover inspired by the iconic film Perfect Blue***. When I asked about her current inspirations, she said that she wasn’t reading anything at the moment, but that she was really enjoying the Netflix show Derry Girls—which isn’t a book, but does have a bookish lesbian in the main cast!

If that sounds up your alley, so might the podcast Bitches on Comics. Book-loving hosts S.E. Fleenor and Sara Century helmed a panel featuring authors Bishakh Som (creator of Spellbound and the intriguing Apsara Engine), Danny Lore (writer for Marvel’s Champions Volume 2: Killer App and DC’s upcoming Multiversity: Teen Justice), Nadia Shammas (writer for Ms. Marvel: Stretched Thin and the excellent Squire), and Tina Horn (author for the NSFW SFSX), the panel touched on how writing characters that shared one’s own marginalized identities can be “a double-edged sword”.

On the good side, it’s great that publishers are willing to back more Black voices. Danny Lore spoke about their experiences growing up with “sci-fi-fantasy [that] always evolved past and away from blackness and brownness, that these idealized cultures were…frankly, bastardized forms of what white folks thought an African-based culture would be.” Growing up with stories written from such limited perspectives led them to try “to pull from a white suburban middle class life that I had never known”, when “I am a New Yorker, my whole life…the world that I grew up in, this Black American world did not, does not exist in a lot of sci-fi.”

But their path through the industry hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. It’s been hard work, pushing back against publishers’ focus on boxing Black narratives into “trauma stories”. Lore recalls the time they were trying to pitch a manuscript set in the projects in Harlem, and being the only black person there, was subject to a lot of misguided questions about why gentrification was not a bigger theme. It was exasperating because, “I don’t want to tell stories about gentrification. I want to tell stories about people who do magic in the hood.”

Nadia Shammas has had similar experiences with good intentioned and badly informed editors. “When we were pitching Squire, which is a fantasy Middle Eastern world heavily based on the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, both of us did an enormous amount of work and put a real place in the book, Petra. But that resulted in publishers going ‘I love this, it’s so brave…do you think that people might think it’s about the real world?’ and ‘People might think it’s about Palestine and we don’t want to make a statement.’”

Which is frustrating, when “as a Palestinian, the way I view the world and therefore the world of my art is going to be painted through that lens, always.”

“The work I make is so personal, and it’s so incredible that people relate to it. But sometimes that means people will then attempt to read more into my work and put things in my mouth that aren’t there.” She acknowledges that “it’s hard to make personal, genuine work when there are outside forces including your employers, who are attempting to use that work to market broadly”.

Which raises the question of whose perspectives are seen as “broadly appealing”. As great as it is to have more inclusivity on the page, it’s important to make sure that the diversity of the characters is reflected behind the scenes, too. As Tina Horn put it, “the difference between all these fictional characters and me is that I’m the one that gets paid. Characters don’t get paid to be in the stories.”

It’s an unfortunate reality that superficial gains can obscure more deeply rooted inequities. For example, the judging panel for the Eisner Awards (the comics industry’s most prestigious award) rarely has more than one person of color. Seriously. Even as the organization makes a more concerted effort to include works by creators of color, the judges themselves are usually not.

Of course, not everyone sets out with the conscious intention of reflecting reality on the page. Sometimes, wonderful art comes from feelings that are indescribable, inarticulable only because the artist has yet to find words or images to express them. So, like Bishakh Som, they create their own.

the cover of Spellbound

“I’ve always had a lot of South Asian femmes and women in my work…it just seemed natural, right? Like, why not?” For her, creating comics was less an attempt to break out of a narrow narrative box, and more about building “a sort of gateway or portal into realizing, 50 years later, who I was.”

But that brought its own set of complications. “After coming out like that, I think the burden of representation became a little more explicit and heavy. I think people expected more explicitly trans stories, and I was like, ‘I’m here for that’, but also now I’m going to become this person who writes ‘that kind of thing’.” Not that she minds too much now, “because it’s a cushy and glamorous box” to be in.

PT II – Fanart, Aesthetics and Graphic Novel Illustration

As I like to tell anyone who will listen, comics are such a wonderful medium precisely because the images allow creators to work with metaphors that straddle the line between prose’s staticity and film’s dynamism. So I was excited to chat with Aatmaja Pandya, illustrator for the YA graphic novel Slip, to get more insight on the visual side of the creative process.

When I asked about her inspirations, she was quick to mention Jillian Tamaki. Pandya recalled her time at the New York City School of Visual Arts, where the Eisner-winning artist “basically taught me how to make comics”.

She also mentioned manga as inspiring the “energy and the youthful quality” she brings to her own work. “I think this generation of young cartoonists, or people around my age, all sort of came up in the era of Tokyopop manga…and we’re seeing the consequence of that now. I mean, the ones that I read while making Slip were all Shonen Jump manga, because they have an online app and the subscription is really affordable. So I read, like, all of One Piece.”

Which, at a staggering 1000-odd issues and counting, invited the question: how on Earth did she balance that with making comics and her day job as a high school teacher? Did teaching teens help her develop her art?

“I don’t think it’s influenced my work so much, but it reminds me every day that they are not a monolith. That every person has their own interests and I can’t predict what they’ll be interested in. So to write authentically and to write passionately is what will draw attention.”

When I mentioned her work gave a lot of respect to the depth of young people’s experiences, she thought that was a good way to put it.

“Teenagers feel really complicated feelings and they’re incredibly vulnerable and making a lot of decisions about their future but aren’t given the agency to really be able to control any of it.” She goes on to say that though young readers are not adults yet, “to at least have it acknowledged that what you’re thinking is real to you and serious to you is incredibly valuable, and that’s why I really care about making books about, like, gray areas and complicated, emotional issues for teenagers.”

When asked what comics she read when she was a teenager, Pandya mentioned her fondness for the Fruits Basket manga. “I still reread it every couple of years. But I was such a voracious reader, and we just read whatever was available. So I would read my friends’ volumes and we would all trade stuff. I was just absorbing the aesthetic of it.”

A photo of Aatmaja Pandya wearing a mask and holding a copy of Slip. The book has stickers saying Sold Out - More Tomorrow

It’s an aesthetic that is more background noise than front-and-present in Pandya’s art style. If you look for it, you’ll see echoes of it in the way certain character’s eyes indicate their emotions, or in the organization of certain panels. Overall, there’s a soft youthfulness to the art and expressions that doesn’t shy away from depicting the characters as the flawed, feeling teenagers they are. And if you end up reading Slip and enjoying Pandey’s illustrations as much as I did, you should know that she has also been contracted for a couple more YA and middle grade graphic novels. Keep your eyes and ears open for more lovely work to come!

I also grabbed a quick convo with Street Noise Books‘ design intern, Dev Kamath. Interns aren’t often front-facing, and the general public is not too aware of their influence on the finished stories, so I hope this spot will shed some light on their efforts. Dev’s passion really came through when I asked what inspired them:

“I personally really enjoy working on queer books, because those are the books I didn’t grow up seeing. And I discovered my identity a lot later because I was finally seeing people around me who were using they/them pronouns. And I was like, ‘Oh, if I saw books like that when I was younger, it would have meant a lot. So I like to do design work and illustrating work and helping other people get their voices out there. Because it’s like, everybody’s got a story to tell. But not everybody has a way to put it out there. I see my role as helping them get there. The current project I’m working on, I’m the one organizing the files and adding the text in and doing some edits to get it to where it can be published easier, so the book gets out faster so people can read it and people want to read it.” (emphasis mine)

That really gets to the heart of it all. At Flame Con, I got a look at the behind-the-scenes efforts, the communities that went into creating these stories and supporting/amplifying the voices that tell them. It’s an intricate, collaborative process, and getting even this superficial glimpse really makes one appreciate the art of it all so much more.

Comics/graphic novels were not the only art form in glorious abundance on the con floor. Painstakingly elaborate cosplays and singularly expressive fandom merch are no scarcity at a con, but this was probably the first one where I’ve so many references to What We Do In The Shadows—or so much slash fanart for sale.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters Vol 1 cover

So. Much. Slash. Fanart. And also monster girls, which was neat. What I wouldn’t give for a movie adaptation of Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Book 2 coming later this year!). The metaphors are powerful, and the visuals would lend themselves beautifully to the screen. If you are a fan of the lesbian vampire trope or the bisexual vampire trope or just sapphic horror in general, I strongly recommend it. The story deals with some heavy themes and might not be for everyone, but it certainly pushed boundaries in the sort of way that lends itself to timelessness. It’s a riveting exploration of beauty and relationships and the ways internalized bigotry can shape young self-concepts.

Beauty has long struggled for purchase in comics, though. The American comic imagination has historically been dominated by the ever-more muscled, hyper-masculinized aesthetics of twentieth century Marvel and DC. As exciting as the recent Sandman TV show is, the fact remains that this is (as far as I know) major motion pictures’ first foray into a comic adaptation that is not about a character whose biggest deal is punching (or wanting to punch) various sentient beings in the face with fists or bullets or various elemental beams.

Recent years have thankfully seen a shift in publication trends, though. Creators like the ones I mention above are gaining market share by writing into existence the sort of representation that was once all too scarce. It is a humanizing of the once-monstrous, a reclamation and reconstruction of an art form that has only lately begun to be widely recognized for its merits.

the cover of Galaxy the Prettiest Star

Jadzia Axelrod, the writer for DC’s new(est) sapphic teen extraterrestrial romance shares my hopes for the future of comics. “I mean, the publishing industry is glacial in its movement and the pandemic has only made it slower. I’m not sure how long that sea change will take, but I see on the horizon some projects that I am very excited about. So I’m very hopeful. But we always need more, right?”

“More” including stories that allowed LGBTQ+ people to be messy and make mistakes. “I do think there’s this pressure on queer creators to do queer stories and to also show that queer love is beautiful—which it is—but to also show it as uncomplicated, and it’s just as complicated as straight people’s. And it can be beautiful and complicated and the damaging part is not the queer part, it’s the human part.”

After making that beautifully-worded statement, she recommended Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier. It is a cute high school rom-com about two aspiring cheerleaders who are less worried about coming out and struggling more with what life looks like after the act. It’s my most recent interlibrary loan request, and I await its arrival.

And while we’re on the topic, want to know how you can support libraries in the face of increasing book challenges and bans? Simple: every check-out counts. So, even if you might not necessarily have the time to read them, check out the books about LGBTQ+ experiences, about race, about the histories your high school textbooks glossed over. Even if you are not a budget-conscious grad-student trying to stretch her savings and can afford to buy books, check out the ones you want to support, from creators you want to support. Library purchases make up a not inconsiderable portion of book sales, after all!

a photo of a stack of library graphic novels and comics (Squire, Galaxy: The Prettiest Star, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength) with a Batman mug on top
Shoutout to my local librarian,  for recognizing me and recommending Alison Bechdel’s newest work when I went in to pick up some requests. Interlibrary loan is a blessing.

By the end of the weekend, I had a bag full of business cards and an even longer TBR list than before. Attending Flame Con was a great experience that introduced me to so many new creators. It is entirely volunteer-run by fans, for fans, and the ethos of that permeated everything. From the panels to the performances, this was a place where people were able to articulate all aspects of themselves, and the wealth of creativity on display was amazingly affirming to witness. This is a passion project, and one I wholeheartedly enjoyed exploring and learning from.

———-

*Like in I’m In Love with the Villainess, which is a funny, lighthearted isekai** rom-com with a little angst, if you’re looking for more laughs.

**A manga subgenre where people from our world get pulled into fictional ones via portals or reincarnation

***Perfect Blue (1998) by Satoshi Kon, aka “Darren Aronofsky’s Pinterest Board”, as the podcast team at Progressively Horrified calls it. I need to rely less on footnotes, but this was too good a joke to leave out.

Sam reviews Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

the cover of Burning Roses

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I don’t want to spoil too much about Burning Roses by S.L. Huang, because first and foremost it is short. It is a proper novella, clocking in at just over 150 pages long. If you can get your hands on this little volume, I recommend you slap on some sunscreen and take it out to a nice park bench for an hour or two. That’s what I did, and I had a lovely time with it.

Burning Roses asks the question, “what if Little Red Riding Hood and the mythic archer Hou Yi were traumatized, middle-aged lesbians?” World-weary and with most of their stories already behind them, Rosa (Riding Hood’s actual name) and Hou Yi are practically the only characters in this book, and spend most of it slowly teasing out of each other just how badly they’ve messed up their own lives. I found both characters fairly compelling pretty quickly, and I didn’t have any trouble turning pages to see more of them. The worldbuilding is slightly less strong; set in a fairy-tale version of Europe and China, Huang mixes vague but evocative fantasy staples like sorcery and rampaging monsters with the more specific novum of grundwirgen, talking animals or human-animal shapeshifters that stand in for all Grimm- and Lang-style bestial characters. Thankfully, the book just isn’t long enough for this mismatch of specificity to become jarring.

In that respect, the length of Burning Roses does a lot of work both for and against it. I got the feeling that if it were longer, Huang might have been tempted to spiral out into unnecessary worldbuilding, where instead what we got is really all we need to serve the story. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will be rereading Burning Roses for the thrill of experiencing the arc of Rosa’s romance again. Not that it wasn’t heartfelt, it certainly was—but in a slightly shorthanded, “you lesbians reading know the feeling” kind of way. What stood out to me most, however, is that there really isn’t a single chapter—or even a paragraph—out of place in this book. It’s been edited down to a strong, streamlined story; fantastical for sure, but with the very human issues of self-deception and the difficult working of making amends at its core.

When something like that comes along in such a quick and easy package, how could I not recommend it?

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.