Jamaican Joan of Arc: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I first saw Kamilah Cole describe her debut, So Let Them Burn, as a Jamaican Joan of Arc, which was enough to grab my attention even before the book had a cover. To be more specific, So Let Them Burn is the first book in a YA fantasy series that follows former chosen one Faron Vincent and her older sister, Elara. Five years after the war for their island’s independence, Elara inadvertently forms a bond with an enemy dragon, while Faron determines she will stop at absolutely nothing to save her sister from the threat of both the bond and the empire itself.  

Like I said, I was sold on the concept the minute I heard about it, but even the coolest concept can turn out to be a let down in the wrong hands. Kamilah Cole is not the wrong hands. It took less than half a page for me to determine that I was going to love this book, and as the story unfolded, I only got more invested. Every time I had to put the book down, I was just a little bit resentful that I couldn’t keep reading.

Something that I thought was really fun is that while I knew this book follows a chosen one after she’s done her duty, Faron is not the only one who fits into a popular fantasy archetype. One dynamic I found particularly fascinating is the one between chosen one Faron and Queen Aveline, who spent the first seventeen years of her life on a farm with no knowledge of her true identity and now resents Faron a little bit for the fact that when the war ended, Faron got to go home and Aveline didn’t.

Literally all of the relationships were wonderful, though. The romantic relationships had me hooked, as did the friendships, but the central relationship between the two sisters just felt so real. They both loved and admired each other so much that, despite the hints of jealousy on each side and the expected annoyances, they were both so determined to keep each other safe, whatever the cost. I loved them both, and I am terrified for what the next book will bring for them.

I also really enjoyed the narrative voice, which was the first thing to win me over. It made me laugh throughout, though it never detracted from the more serious themes. Since this was third-person, I’m much less inclined to be annoying about how distinct the perspectives did or did not feel from each other, but there was at least enough difference that I never forgot which sister’s head I was in, even when they were in a scene together, so I’m quite satisfied on that front.

I already know I’m going to miss these characters when the series is done, but fortunately I’ve got some time until then. (Less fortunately, it also means I have to somehow survive that cliffhanger until then.) Even more fortunately, this series is not the only thing I have to look forward to from Kamilah Cole. Not every book that sounds amazing ends up living up to my expectations, but this one definitely exceeded them. I recommend it with my whole heart.

An Underrated Fantasy Western: The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

the cover of The Good Luck Girls

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I am actually going to talk about two books in this review, because while I thought the first book was fantastic, it was not until I finished the sequel that I fully realized exactly how good I thought these books were.

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis follows a pair of sisters, Aster and Clementine, as well as a few of their friends as they escape what is known as a welcome house after Clementine accidentally kills a wealthy patron.  While the first book is a journey story and the second dives much deeper into the nitty-gritty of revolution, both books are very much fantasy Westerns set in a bleak world inspired by the United States, with heavy themes of justice, inequality, and survival in spite of it all.

Oh boy, did I not expect to love this series as much as I did. I almost didn’t read it at all because even though it is YA, I still feared it would be too bleak for me, the themes of sexual trauma too heavy and too real for me to be able to handle. Fortunately, I decided to give it a shot anyway, because this is a perfect example of why I keep reading YA. I loved all of the characters and their relationships, but more than that, I loved how seriously the book took each of them and their struggles, while also holding them accountable for the ways they hurt people because of it. I loved that it let them be flawed and make mistakes and still deserve love—still deserve better than what the world gives them. And I loved that it let them be angry.

I also appreciated that even though it was YA, it never felt like it was talking down to its readers. These books have a very clear perspective (as they should, and as pretty much every book does), but the author uses the story, rather than the narration, to get that perspective across, which, to me, felt more effective.  I don’t want to say too much, but what I will say is of all the YA I’ve read, I think this series engages the most maturely with revolution and oppression, with the hard choices it requires and the ways oppression pits people against each other when they should be on the same side. While it is certainly for and about teenagers, it doesn’t simplify or sugarcoat. It is harsh and it is hard and it is dark, but it is also a fight worth making.  For all of that, though, there is an optimism that remains, sometimes dimmer but always there.

I really wish more people would read these books because they are so damn good. They are exactly the kind of books I deserved to have in high school and am grateful current teenagers have now. I can’t wait to see what Charlotte Nicole Davis does next.

Haunted by the Past: She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

the cover of she is a haunting

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Horror is a very broad genre, and, I am inclined to say, a particularly personal one, seeing as what scares one person may not scare another, or, on the other hand, it might scare them too much. I myself love a good haunted house, but psychological horror freaks me out in concept alone, to the point that I won’t touch a book when I see it labeled that way. Trang Thanh Tran’s She is a Haunting, I am pleased to report, is my favorite kind of horror, that particular style where it’s kind of about the ghosts, but it’s not really about the ghosts. Or rather, it is, but it’s about what the ghosts represent more than the don’t-look-behind-you scariness.

That’s not to say this book isn’t scary, of course. I personally do not tend to get scared while reading books, so I am not the best judge, but I thought the book did a good job creating a creepy atmosphere and some really unsettling images (all those bugs *shudder*). The scariest thing in this book, though, is not the ghosts themselves but the very real horrors of colonialism, as well as the impacts of it that linger through to today. While this book is aimed at teenagers, it does not shy away from those atrocities, but nor does it dwell on them, exactly.

Beyond those horrors, however, this is also the story of Jade, a closeted seventeen-year-old wrestling with a complicated family dynamic and her relationship to Vietnam as a Vietnamese American who is visiting the country for the first time. As a protagonist, I adored Jade. I thought she felt very authentically seventeen, which is to say that while she was occasionally frustrating, she was trying her best. 

I also thought all of the relationships in the book were well-drawn. Her romance with “bad girl” Florence was endearing, and their interactions made me giggle a few times. The more complex dynamics with the parents worked equally well for me, and in fact I found her mom to be a standout character for me by the end.

Regarding the ending, I will say there were one or two elements that felt on the edge of overly dramatic, but I thought the book did enough well that I didn’t really mind. Emotions were running high, after all, and real life can be overly dramatic too. Regardless, I felt the book ended on a high and, frankly, down-to-earth note that left me satisfied.

I look forward to more horror from Trang Thanh Tran, and reading more horror in general this year, because this book reminded me that it is a genre I enjoy when it is done in the particular way I most vibe with, as this one was. If you are looking for a creepy haunted house that’s grounded in both the past and the present and the ways they affect each other, I highly recommend She is a Haunting.

Gay Arthurian Hijinks in Space: Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy

Once and Future cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Once & Future, by married couple A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy, takes Arthurian mythos into the stars. It follows the latest, and hopefully last, reincarnation of King Arthur, now a teenage girl named Ari, and the wizard Merlin, who, due to his backwards aging, is now a teenager. Merlin’s job is, and has always been, to keep the Arthurs safe. With her own band of knights (a tight-knit and extremely diverse group of lifelong friends, including a bisexual Guinevere who is queen of her own Renaissance Faire-themed planet!), Ari must step up to defend the galaxy from its next great danger. The great danger that has called Arthur back this time? Space capitalism. (Seriously, the main villain and his company are pretty clear stand-ins for Amazon.)

I’m genuinely so obsessed with this. Listen, I was a Merlin gay in high school, and I still consider it one of my favorite shows, even though there are parts of it I really hate. It’s complicated. This book is not Merlin, it’s not trying to be Merlin, but it does scratch that Merlin itch I get sometimes, and it does it without any of the things that make me angry when I watch that show I still love. Literally every problem I have—absent in this book.

Now to talk about the book itself, I had an actual blast reading it. I laughed so much, felt genuinely sad, and I think I might have cheered out loud at least once. I’m pretty good at judging how I’ll feel about a book before I start it, so I end up enjoying most of the books I read, but this one caught me off guard by how much more I loved it than I was prepared to. Throughout the day, I kept thinking “I can’t wait for my lunch break so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait to get home so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait until I finish my dinner so I can keep reading.” I cannot emphasize enough how much I always looked forward to continuing this book when I wasn’t reading it.

I think the main thing I love is the characters. Arthurian retellings can be tricky because there are so many different interpretations of the characters, and someone always ends up getting villainized, and sometimes it’s for reasons that are really stupid. This book does not do that. There is so much sympathy for all of these kids and the archetypes they’ve been slotted into. I loved Ari’s and Gwen’s determination to remain themselves, and I loved how much of Merlin’s arc centered around the idea that he can protect Arthur/Ari while also having a life for himself (and maybe also kiss that cute boy who likes him).

If I had one “note” (I can’t even call it a criticism because for me it wasn’t an issue, but I could see other people feeling different), I will say the relationship development sometimes moved a little quickly, but again, I didn’t mind at all because the relationships, platonic and romantic, were so great.

This is the Arthurian retelling of my dreams. It’s funny, it’s sympathetic, and it’s gay as hell. It is exactly the book I wish existed when I was in high school, but lucky for me now, A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy wrote two of them!

Sporty Sapphics: Cleat Cute by Meryl Wilsner

the cover of Cleat Cute

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Meryl Wilsner’s Cleat Cute is probably one of the most talked-about sapphic romances of the fall, at least in my circles, and in my opinion, the hype is deserved. It follows serious team captain Grace Henderson and enthusiastic up-and-comer Phoebe Matthews from a rocky first impression to a growing respect to genuine romantic feelings, all amidst preparations for the World Cup.

As someone who cared about soccer for one weekend and never before or since, I will say first that you definitely do not need to care about soccer to care about this book. Soccer is of course the backdrop, and it’s important to both of the main characters, but none of it is so detailed that it loses readers who aren’t soccer fans. As a theater person rather than a sports-of-any-sort person, I could still relate to a lot of this book, with all of the passion and dedication, even to the point of overdoing it and needing the reminder that, hey, it’s okay to rest.

I loved the characters a lot. Their banter made me laugh, and I smiled a lot through most of their interactions, whether it was in a this-is-funny way or a I’m-so-happy-for-these-characters-connecting kind of way. I definitely felt like I could understand why they liked each other, which is the most important thing for me in romance.  I loved how seriously they took each other, pretty much from the beginning, especially when it came to how they handled each other’s neurodivergence, even before either one had actually put a word to it. I will say that I would not have been mad if some of the side characters got more page-time as well because they were all lovely, but I get that it’s not their story, so.

I will say that most of the conflict seemed to stem from miscommunication, which can be frustrating and isn’t usually my favorite, but it was so understandably in-character that I actually didn’t really mind it here. It never felt contrived, and it was resolved quickly enough that it didn’t make me wonder how they would ever be able to make a relationship work moving forward. I also have to say, the way the final misunderstanding was resolved was fantastic and it actually made me cackle.

This was definitely my favorite romance I’ve read in a while, and while I’m not actually a huge romance reader, this was definitely one to remind me why I like coming back to this genre.

The Loosely Medieval YA Romcom of My Dreams: Gwen and Art are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

the cover of Gwen and Art Are Not In Love

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Gwen and Art are Not in Love by Lex Croucher is not an Arthurian retelling, nor is it particularly converned with historical accuracy. What it is instead is a queer YA romcom set in a Camelot that is slightly obsessed with King Arthur several hundred years after his death, starring a princess (Gwen) and a noble (Art) who have been engaged since they were children, and who also can’t stand each other. Rather than fall for each other, as the romcom structure would typically dictate, they instead grow closer in the aftermath of Gwen catching Art kissing a stable boy and then Art finding Gwen’s diary, wherein she fantasizes about the kingdom’s only female knight. From there, they decide to more or less act as each other’s wing(wo)men for the summer, resulting in what may be the sweetest, funniest, and all-around most entertaining book I have read this year.

Reading this book felt like reading fanfiction, and I mean that as the highest compliment. When I stopped reading published books in my free time and switched over to fanfiction for years because it was the only place I could find what I was looking for, this book right here is exactly what I wish I had. These characters felt like old friends right from the beginning, and I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a book. Like, the dialogue in this book was impeccable.

I can’t gush enough about how much fun I had reading this book or all of the things I loved about it because it really was pretty much everything, so instead I’m just going to note the two things that kept sticking out at me that made me appreciate this book even more:

For one, I loved the way this book challenged the idea of being “not like other girls,” because yeah, as a queer nerdy teenager, I definitely could have related to Gwen’s assumption that all of the other girls were shallow stereotypes gossiping about her when she’s not listening, and I also could have used a reminder that other teenager girls aren’t the enemy just because they’re more comfortable making friends than you are. I thought this book incorporated that really nicely, without it feeling heavy-handed.

Most importantly, I loved how much love was in this book. Between Gwen and Art’s blossoming friendship, their respective blossoming romances, and Gwen’s close friendship with her brother, there really is no shortage of love of all kinds, something that I think is especially important in queer YA. It was a joy to watch these kids fall in love, and then also be able to talk about it with their outside support systems, or help each other work through their feelings, or go let loose together at a party on their birthday.

My only note, if you will, is I did feel like the sapphic relationship got the least pagetime, predominantly because Art’s love interest is also Gwen’s brother, which means that while Gabe is a major character in both Art and Gwen’s chapters, Bridget is mostly only in Gwen’s. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was a failing on this book’s part, because I truly do mean it when I say I loved every page of this book, but I did wish I got as much of Bridget as I did of Gwen, Art, and Gabe.

From the very first page, I thought this was legitimately one of the funniest books I have ever read, but it did not take long for this book to prove itself full of just as much heart, as well as characters I would protect with my life. If I could give my teenage self just one book, it would almost certainly be this one.

A Brutal and Beautiful Chinese Epic: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun cover

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

If you have even a passing interest in sapphic fantasy, you have almost certainly heard about She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. A reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty’s rise to power, it begins with a young boy who is destined for greatness and a young girl who is destined to be nothing. When the boy instead follows the rest of the family into death, the girl takes on both his name and his fate, doing whatever she must to not only survive but to rise higher and higher until she finally reaches that fated greatness she so desires.

For so long, I put off reading this book because while I love nothing more than a beautiful sapphic fantasy, all I heard people say about this book (besides that it is brilliant) is it is brutal and it will wreck me. Having now read it for myself, I can confirm all of those things: it is brutal, and it did wreck me, and it is legitimately one of the best books I have read all year (perhaps equal only to its follow-up, He Who Drowned the World). I say this having read a lot of great books that I loved this year. I am absolutely obsessed with this duology.

When I say it is brutal, though, I am actually not really referring to on-page violence. Part of the reason I think I put off reading it for so long is because the war setting made me assume there would be a lot of graphic battle scenes, which I personally have never cared for. As it turns out, however, the battles are much more political than combat-based, even while many of the main characters are warriors. There is violence, to be sure, but it is not particularly drawn-out.

Where Parker-Chan’s real interest lies is in the characters and their relationships, and that, too, is where I found the most brutal thing about this book. I don’t want to say too much because I think spoiling anything in this book is practically a crime, but when I say that I don’t think I have read a more terrible and beautiful and painful and complex relationship than some of the ones in this book, please understand that I have read Tamsyn Muir. The agony I experienced reading this book was somehow even more intense than what The Locked Tomb did to me. One particular scene between Ouyang and Esen made me actually scream, and if you’ve read this book, it’s probably not even the one you’re thinking of.

For all the agony this book caused me, however, it was also so much funnier than I expected. Zhu, our protagonist, was particularly funny, but it wasn’t just her. I alternated between laughing and almost crying so many times while reading this, and neither emotion ever felt like it was encroaching on the other. The mood of every scene was masterfully written, so nothing felt out of place.

I have to talk about Zhu some more, though, because while I loved (and also hated, sometimes at the same time) so many characters in this book, Zhu in particular stood out. I don’t think I’ve read another character like her. As I said before, she was surprisingly funny, but she was also the most determined, ambitious, ferocious force of nature. Her character arc is as complex as anything else in this book—think “I support queer rights, but I also support queer wrongs,” as, like pretty much all of the characters in this book (except Ma, who is lovely and deserves the world), her choices are never unbelievable from a character perspective, but they are not always what one would call “morally defensible.” (Who, after all, strives for greatness while remaining good?) Despite that, she remains compelling, and somehow I never stopped rooting for her.

I can see why this book isn’t for everyone–it is rather dense and truly horrifying at times, and the sequel, which comes out next week, is even worse. However, this is a book that knows exactly what it is, and it does it so well. It is a brilliantly crafted epic about power, greatness, and gender, and it took my breath away. I would say, if the premise sounds interesting and the trigger warnings sound manageable, make sure you’re in the right headspace and give this series a shot. Let it wreck you—I promise it will be worth it.

Trigger warnings: War, violence, death, child death, misogyny, sexual content, animal death, torture, internalized homophobia, mutilation.