Meagan Kimberly reviews Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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In the second of the Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir, we follow the story of Harrow. But this isn’t the same Harrow from Gideon the Ninth. It seems like this is a Harrow from an alternate timeline and the original Harrow died. Except not really.

However, there are points where the narrative seems to jump back to referencing the previous Harrow, which makes the second-person point of view all the more confusing. There’s a distance created with the second-person perspective that leaves both main character and reader detached from Harrow.

Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure I understood what happened in this book. The varying memories and characters make it a convoluted mess that’s hard to follow. Essentially, it all comes down to a continued war waged against a revenant planet that, if I’m not mistaken, was controlled by god the Emperor the whole time.

There are so many characters that come and go, die and then turn out not to be dead, it makes it impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t. But perhaps that’s the point, as the Harrow the reader is following in this story appears to be losing her mind.

Except not really? It turns out she’s haunted by a ghost that her mind has turned into a monster called The Sleeper. Unclear who this figure is and their connection to Harrow. One of the more fun parts of the story happens when Harrow uses the power of narrative to combat her enemy. Using the old stories of heroes she grew up with, she creates a magical narrative to fight The Sleeper, literally speaking the outcome of the battle into existence.

Gideon does feature in this novel, but it’s hard to delve into her side of the story without major spoilers. But the plot twist with her character at the end does leave me so intrigued to continue reading the series. However, if the next book is just as convoluted and confusing as this one, I’m not sure I can finish it.

Maggie reviews A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

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Last year, I was delighted by A Marvellous Light, a gay murder mystery/romance in which Robin, a newly-made Baronet, is appointed to the wrong government office and is accidently drawn into the hidden world of magical society when shadowy forces think he knows more than he does. With a curse mark creeping up his arm and no clue how magic works, Robin must work with his liaison, Edwin Courcey, to unravel the conspiracy he’s been plunged into and save England’s magic. It was a delightful book, and now Freya Marske is back for round two in A Restless Truth with Robin’s sister Maud, who is determined to play her role in the events started in the previous book and not let her brother down. With England’s magic at stake, Maud must prove herself and also take her own turn with romance.

Sent to America to escort an elderly lady who knows a piece of the puzzle back to England, Maud instead finds herself embroiled in murder, mystery, and mayhem on the high seas. Not a magician herself, Maud recruits allies to her cause, including Violet Debenham, a newly-minted heiress returning to England from a scandalous stage career, and Lord Hawthorne, a disaffected nobleman who has given up his magic but can’t escape being entangled in this mystery. Maud is reliant on them for magical spells and knowledge, but her wits, stubbornness, and audacity are her own, and she’s not about get off the boat in England without a success to bring to her brother.

This book was a fun romp from beginning to end. Maud is smart and daring, and her instant attraction to Violet is a surprise to both of them. I started laughing at her “Wait…girls are an option?” moment. Violet joins Maud’s quest to begin with mostly because it seems like it will be fun, but soon she finds herself with more feelings than she expected and wanting to live up to Maud’s expectations. The fact that they are on an ocean liner creates a semi-protected bubble where they can explore their feelings without too much dodging of society. I also greatly enjoyed that, while Violet is the more jaded and experienced half of the pair, Maud is the one who takes the lead the most often. It is Maud’s force of personality that pulls together their little investigative band, and I really enjoyed her as a character. Together with the escalating danger of the murder mystery, I had a great time.

In conclusion, you’ll probably want to pick up the first book, A Marvellous Light, before you read A Restless Truth so that you are familiar with the conspiracy that Maud is caught up in. But as a murder mystery on an ocean liner, this book was a high stakes adventure from beginning to end.  It’s a fun and charming read, and I love Freya Marske’s historical magical society.  I do rec them as a read to brighten any week.

Sam reviews Other Ever Afters by Melanie Gillman

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If you spend much time on Tumblr—and who doesn’t, these days—there’s a good chance you’ve seen at least one of Melanie Gillman’s gay fairy tale 24-hour comics. They’re well-loved on the microblogging social media, and for good reason. With simple but beautiful panels, an enchanting storybook feel, and a tender heart at the center of all of them, it’s hard not to stop and read each all over again whenever they pop up on the dashboard. You can go read all four 24-hour comics on Gillman’s personal Tumblr (including my favorite, “Hsthete”), but you can also find them in their recently published anthology Other Ever Afters.

As a proper graphic novel anthology, Other Ever Afters adds three new fairy tale comics to the four Gillman was already known for. The additions match in tone and style quite well, and it was a delight seeing the originals existing outside of a computer screen. It’s a beautiful book, hefty in the hand and bursting with color. The stories themselves are sugar-sweet romances, chaste but decidedly queer. A quiet longing runs through many of them, a sense of things being not quite right—seeing this familiar queer dilemma resolve with a fairy tale’s characteristic turn comes with a slight subversive thrill and a good deal of warm fuzzies each time. The addition of an illustrated introduction and epilogue was a particularly nice touch, one which I think pulls the entire book together in a wonderful way.

Other Ever Afters is the perfect kind of graphic novel to own, to have at disposal any time you’d like to read a short, sweet, queer fairy tale romance. Even if you have no plans to buy it though, I’d recommend checking out a copy from your local library, just for the experience of reading these stories in print for the first time.

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 her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

Til reviews The Gathering Dark edited by Tori Bovalino

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The Gathering Dark is a collection of folk horror short stories. I went into this book expecting the folk horror short stories. The queerness of those stories came as a delightful surprise. I will own outright that whether or not this counts as a sapphic read is debatable.  To me, it does. Out of ten stories, five feature explicitly queer main characters, four of whom are girls. In this review, I will only be addressing those four stories—though the others are solid reads for fans of horror.

The identities and situations are as much a mix as the stories. There’s a character who self-identifies as bi, others who are attracted to other girls and don’t feel the need for definition. Love saves. Love haunts. Love finds itself excluded in favor of a gruesome murder/kidnapping. The book delivers exactly what a short story collection should: varied experiences under a shared theme. Intentionally, that theme is horror. Coincidentally, another theme is queerness.

As with most anthologies, the quality varies. I enjoyed some stories more than others.

Erika Waters’ “Stay” employed the unseen to a haunting and unsettling degree. I still can’t get the implication out of my head.

Hannah Whitten’s “One-Lane Bridge” tapped into the raw rage that serves as both salvation and destruction to far too many girls. It definitely was for me!

And Tori Bovalino’s “Loved by All, Save One” embodied both the fear of a home invasion thriller and the all-too-potent feeling of trauma that might be inherited or ingrained from being a woman in a world and genre that sees female bodies as ripe only for exploitation. (I love horror, but I’m well aware it took a long time to acknowledge girls as anything other than penetrable objects.)

While I felt less connected to Allison Saft’s “Ghost on the Shore”, I can see the appeal in a horror story built around a need that seems fated be, eternally, unrecognized.

I recommend The Gathering Dark to readers looking for a diverse, sapphic, spooky collection. That’s not a mix we often see executed well, and this book was a pleasant surprise!

Rachel reviews The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

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Described as a cross between Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Tara Isabella Burton’s novel The World Cannot Give (2022) is a dark, Gothic, and powerful meditation on the dangers of desire and the consequences of ambition. 

The novel follows Laura Stearns as she arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, a prestigious school on the coast that her favourite novelist, Sebastian Webster, whose book All Before Them has inspired her move across the country. Webster died at nineteen fighting in the Spanish Civil War and Laura idolizes him, believing that her time at the school will replicate the events of the novel. And indeed, Laura finds some of the intensity she is looking for among the school’s very exclusive chapel choir, led by the compelling, charismatic, and somewhat neurotic Virginia Strauss. 

Laura is immediately drawn to Virginia because of her similar devotion to Simon Webster, and Virginia is a born-again Christian, fanatical about her faith and her rigorous routine, including the miles she runs every morning. Virginia demands excellence from herself and the members of the choir. When Virginia brings Laura into the fold, sharing with her the rituals and routines of the choir/cult, Laura feels like she’s entered into a world heavy with meaning. But soon, things begin to fall apart as Virginia’s authority is challenged by various actors at the school, and Virginia’s demands get more and more outlandish before Laura must make a choice between following Virginia or saving herself. 

Overall, this book was enormously compelling and is perfect for fans of queer Gothic literature. I haven’t seen a lot of press around this book, but it really is perfect for fans of The Secret History and lesbian pulp. The intensity and power between characters in this novel left me unable to put this book down. The relationship between Virginia and Laura changes from hot to cold minute to minute, and Virginia’s pathology is so compelling. 

The setting alone is captivating. An elite boarding school on the edge of the sea, the novel strikes a balance between this bizarrely intense group of high school students who are surrounded by decades of history. The twists and turns of this novel continued to surprise me, and I was on the edge of my seat until the very end. The end of this novel caught me off guard in the best way. 

For anyone interested in queer Gothic mystery and intrigue, The World Cannot Give is a must-read!

Please add The World Cannot Give to your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Susannah reviews Helen House by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya came onto my radar via her essays and pop culture criticism on Autostraddle (where she is Managing Editor) and Catapult, among other outlets. Whether reviewing a Netflix mixology competition series or espousing a joint bookshelf system with her girlfriend, each of Kumari’s pieces reads like a fiercely accurate anthropological study of queer culture, but from your funny best friend. So when I learned that she was writing a novelette, I purchased a copy for my library and added my name to the top of the hold list.

Helen House is a curiosity of a book, from its square binding, to its pamphlet-sized length (66 pages), to its sparse Victorian-ish cover design and fever dream illustrations. Billed as a queer ghost story, Helen House begins quietly and unassumingly. The book’s unnamed narrator is preparing to meet her girlfriend Amber’s parents for the first time after a year of dating. The narrator is a graduate student, Amber a librarian. They met on a dating app. On their second date, between bites of clam linguine, the narrator revealed to Amber that her sister Luci had died in a car accident several years earlier, at the age of thirty-two. The narrator confesses (to the reader only) that she’s turned to her hyperactive sex drive as a coping mechanism in the wake of Luci’s death. But, surprising even herself, she stays with Amber, choosing “the safe confines of a committed relationship” over “scouring campus for women to lose [herself] in.”

When, two weeks before their visit to Amber’s parents, Amber reveals that she’d also had a sister, Helen, who died at the age of four, the mood shifts. “There’s something I haven’t told you,” Amber announces, interrupting their makeout session. “My parents are going to talk about it when you see them,” she warns. They proceed with their plans anyway, driving upstate to Amber’s childhood A-frame home, where her parents cheerfully meet them in the driveway. Pam and Arnold are the epitome of normy upper middle class. They serve a wholesome pheasant dinner with red wine. They play cribbage and ask their daughter’s girlfriend about her studies. Their rustic New England home is decorated with lakeside life tchotchkes. “Dinner was normal until it wasn’t,” the narrator foretells.

What follows is a slow-burning progression of odd details and tense dinner table exchanges, all leading to the inevitable reveal of what lies beneath the surface of this seemingly placid family. Surprisingly, the book’s succinctness enhances its suspense—as 66 pages dwindle to 30, 15, 10, it’s hard not to fear what might jump out at you from the next paragraph. Readers will find themselves guessing what the hell is going on in this otherwise familiar-feeling story of modern love, making the eerie bits feel all the more haunting. Recommended for fans of Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, Megan Milks, and Lydia Conklin.

Content warnings: death, grief, trauma, sex addiction

Sam reviews Dreadnought & Sovereign by April Daniels

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I’m not all that into superheroes—I don’t really read comic books, I don’t follow superhero media—but I really enjoyed both Dreadnought and its sequel Sovereign by April Daniels. The books are set in a comic-book-esque modern day, where supervillains appear in history textbooks and it’s not unusual to see flying strongmen punch antimatter androids above the downtown skyline. It’s during just such a superfight that the mantle and powers of one of the world’s strongest heroes, Dreadnought, are unexpectedly passed (another comic book trope, I’m pretty sure) to trans teenager Danielle Tozer. The sudden superpowers speed up her transition, but bring with them a host of pressures, judgements, and expectations from both the heroes and villains of the city alike. With her life upended and her family providing its own challenges, Danielle has to figure out who she wants to be with the whole world watching.

I could pretty easily guess that Dreadnought and Sovereign are the author’s first novels; a few expository and dialogue choices stand out a bit awkwardly, and I simply can’t believe the characters are as young as the text claims them to be. All that is overshadowed, however, by how the books manage to balance the union of both trans and superhero narrative. Bluntly put, Dreadnought and Sovereign are popcorn books—and I mean that in the best way possible. They’re fun, easy to read and hard to put down, and best of all, they have a lot of heart. A lot of trans literature from the past 15 years feels laser-focused on struggle and suffering, so a story about being trans that’s also cheesy genre fiction was (to me, at least) a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Coming at it from the other side, YA adventure novels that try to include a trans character without turning into a book about being trans can sometimes feel a little flat, a little shallow. In Dreadnought and Sovereign, Danielle’s life is equally defined by her gender and sexuality as it is by her superpowers; the worst the novels get is a little over-explanatory of certain terms and concepts related to trans identity and issues (but also superhero identity and issues, to be fair). As I read, I could actually feel myself relax as I realized that April Daniels was taking the struggles of a newly out trans woman seriously, but not losing sight of joy along the way.

The world needs more books like these. As coincidence would have it, April Daniels and I actually graduated from the same literature program (though separated by I’m not sure how many years). It’s not hard for me to imagine the pressure she must have received to write serious works full of sad, serious people, and I’m so glad that these are the novels she decided to create. Trans authors deserve just as much range of expression as their cis counterparts, and stories like Danielle Tozer’s deserve to be told.
Supposedly Daniels is working on a third book in the series, but with where Sovereign ended, I don’t think you should wait for it to be finished before picking up the first two—even if, like me, you’re not that into superheroes.

Content Warnings: transphobia, homophobia, child abuse, torture, violence

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 her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

Nat reviews Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

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I must confess that I’d seen the cover of Legends and Lattes pop up a number of times and thought to myself, eh, too much of a high fantasy book for my tastes. Well, I should know better by now than write off a book based on genre, and I finally gave it a shot after my wife enthusiastically recommended it. If I could leave only a single comment it would be that this book is PRECIOUS. Is there anything more wholesome than a bone crushing, mercenary orc with a heart of gold just looking to get on the straight and narrow and live a quiet, simple life? How about that misunderstood orc finding a new group of loyal, steadfast friends and maybe even love along the way? Did you love Brian Jacques’s Mattimeo when you were a kid? How do you feel about cinnamon rolls? This is the book equivalent of a fresh-from-the oven baked good. 

After years of life on the road, Viv decides to cash out on her wandering, mercenary ways and settle down. Her dream is to open a coffee shop, a risky endeavor considering no one outside of her chosen city of Thune has even heard of coffee. We follow Viv as she embarks on a new adventure, literally hanging up her sword as she takes a different sort of risk. While this is generally considered a low stakes book, I would argue these are at least medium stakes, as the coffee shop is Viv’s dream. While that may not be life or death, it means the world to her. 

In some ways reading this novel feels a bit like playing a RPG in a magical realm with an epic storyline. Watching Viv gradually build her dream cafe, acquiring a motley cast of friends along the way, all while encountering enemies and perhaps stumbling on a surprising ally –  there is a video game-like quality to the way the story unfolds and it’s not surprising that Baldree has a background in game development. 

We are on a journey that feels almost as rewarding to the reader as it does to our book’s hero. 

Of course, Viv can’t live out her dream on big ideas alone – she needs a carpenter, a barista, and perhaps a baker. And most importantly, she needs customers. Viv’s first hire is Tandri, a succubus who’s saddled with an unjust reputation for “manipulating” people, especially men. I love the dynamic between Viv and Tandri as they remind each other not to give into prejudice and assumption. As their business relationship strengthens, so does their personal bond. While there’s a very strong romantic element to this book, most of the conflict is centered around Viv working to attain her goals and becoming a new version of herself. The momentum comes from her personal development and internal struggles, rather than solely on her budding relationship with Tandri. 

A fun fact about this book is that Travis Baldree started writing it for NANOWRIMO in 2021 and self published it in 2022. This is his debut novel, and it met with enough success that it was picked up by trad publisher Tor only a few months later! The backstory of the book is even warm and fuzzy! 2020 2021 2022 2023 is off to a rough start, so why not read more warm and squishy books to pad those rough edges?

Til reviews Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

the cover of Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

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Trigger warnings: gore, torture, death, mutilation, sexual assault, child abuse, violence, harassment… and likely others I’m forgetting. This is a relentless work.

Imagine a story that understood the true horror of the old fairy tales, the depths of yearning and human pain that crafted them, and the wonder that lets us believe, and rolled them up into a young adult novel. Stuffed it with a cream of gorgeous prose. Sprinkled in some sapphic love here, a mature conflict about class distinctions there, a smattering of werefolk. Dusted liberally with feminism that permits physical strength to exist in equal validity.

Am I trying to describe a book or win Bake Off here? Who can tell!

Into the Bloodred Woods takes characters familiar to Western audiences and introduces them in a new telling that uses the strengths of that familiarity. For example, many books with this many perspectives have a confusing start—it’s hard to keep track of all the worldbuilding and four points of view. It’s easier here because I already knew their contexts. Hans and Greta, the woodcutter’s children, are familiar enough. Except this time, they’re left alone in the woods when illness claims their loving father and stepmother.

It uses those familiar characters to tell an original story. A summary of key events would only touch on a tiny fraction of the book itself. This is, as the back-cover blurb promises, a story about a king’s son and daughter, each of whom inherits half a kingdom, and the ensuing battles, politics, conniving, and cruelty. But all of that is shaped by characters: a prince who worships automation and pain, a well-intentioned but spoiled princess who thinks she’s clever enough, a child of the forest when the town is drawing near, and a woodcutter’s daughter who wants little more than family and safety. It’s the intermingling of those characters with the machinations of the wicked prince and his hoard of gold that can be melted by blood. There’s a lot going on, which leads to a fast-paced and multi-faceted story.

One criticism I’ve seen of this book centers on Ursula, daughter of the queen from Rumpelstiltskin’s story, who wants to be queen and has high ideals, but isn’t realistic or mature about them. I would argue that’s the point. She was raised on misogyny and fairytales. Of course she’s unprepared for the real world. It’s a flaw I liked, especially in the way it caused her to interact with Sabine, her love interest. Their love never felt easy. Sabine is of the oppressed werefolk, forced to live in a slum, sleep in a cage, and fight in a ring to earn her way. Though Ursula is also a were, she sleeps in a golden cage in a palace, and has limited understanding of the world and how power feels to the truly powerless. Love never handwaves their differences: they earn their closeness. Ursula has to grow and change, to do a lot of learning—some of it bitter and much of it alone. I liked the realism of that. Sabine didn’t excuse her mistakes. Distances between them feel honest, even as they both long for closeness.

This is an intense read. I wouldn’t recommend it without warning about that. It’s brutal, it’s relentless, and no one is ever truly safe. The primary villain, Albrecht, believes he understands the world better than anyone, that his rule is justified and his attention is a gift, and this justifies any act of violation. The woods themselves respond to the narrative by becoming dangerous and reactive. It’s a powerful story; it’s a story about power. It’s a story about survival, but it’s well worth the ache, as much for the catharsis as because Brockenbough doesn’t lose sight of what’s worth surviving for.

5 out of 5 stars, would be damaged by again!

Maggie reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

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I have been really into horror lately, and finding a lesbian sci-fi horror was a real boon for me, and The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling was a real page-turner. With a spine-tingling atmosphere, a killer setting, and a cast of two, The Luminous Dead draws you into the story as steadily as the characters descend into the cave, and the final rush of action had me up until 3am to finish it.

On a distant planet, Gyre knows the only way to get the money she needs to get off planet and find her mother is underground, where the only valuable resources around are. Caving is lucrative, if you cash out before what lurks underground catches up with you. For Gyre, the risks are worth the reward, and she’s sure her skills are up to the task, even if her resume has been faked, until the particularly plum assignment she’s snagged starts seeming like a setup. For one thing, there’s not a whole team on the other end of the communication array of her hermetically-sealed suit, there’s just one woman, Em, who is both the coordinator and the financier of the operation. For another, this expedition seems off. The deeper Gyre descends into the cave, the more it becomes apparent that this isn’t a normal cave expedition, but a mission personal to Em, and that Em has not been upfront to Gyre as to her real purpose. Beset by physical dangers and the slow unraveling of her own perceptions, Gyre has to balance the risks of fulfilling Em’s personal obsession with the rewards Em has promised that will fulfill Gyre’s, and the cave may not let either of them succeed.

What I loved most about The Luminous Dead was the masterful use of atmosphere. A cave is already an oppressive and dangerous environment, but on this planet, anyone not in a sealed suit is almost guaranteed to never resurface, and what takes them is the subject of rumors and horror stories but few facts. Any action or any bodily exposure outside the suit could attract danger, on top of normal equipment failure and cave dangers. It’s incredibly claustrophobic and it sets the mood instantly. Gyre is entirely dependent on Em and the suit for air, water, food, even vision, and operating in an environment where the smallest misstep could mean death. Even if this book wasn’t queer, it would have been enthralling for the environmental storytelling alone. Starling did a great job of ratcheting up the tension, both physical and mental, as Gyre starts to react to her worsening environment, and a map at the start of the book had me tracing every step of her journey anxiously.

But then add into this the relationship between Gyre and Em and this book turns explosively engaging. It starts out as strictly employer/employee and with Em as a strict taskmaster with her eyes on the prize, but with only Em on the other end of the line instead of a whole team, things start getting personal quickly. Both of them are keeping secrets from the other but start out in a mutually beneficial arrangement, because they both want and need this expedition to go smoothly. But as personal motivations and secrets start to come to light and unanticipated physical dangers start to appear, the tension between them starts to grow. At the same time, Em starts to care about Gyre outside of the objective of succeeding in her mission, and Gyre starts understanding the nature of what is driving Em. As Gyre struggles with the dangers of the cave and the pressures of her own mind under intense danger and isolation, Em struggles remotely to keep her caver alive and accept the realities and limitations of what is possible in this expedition. It’s a whole pressure-cooker of a relationship, conducted over comm lines while one of the parties is in mortal danger and entirely dependent on help from the other, and it’s riveting.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a thriller to spice up your dark winter nights, look no further than The Luminous Dead. It’s one of the most exciting books I’ve read in a while, and I couldn’t put it down, almost literally.