Maggie reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron follows Briseis, a Black teenager who lives with her two moms in Brooklyn, helping them run their flower shop. Briseis has plant magic and can grow plants from a touch, but she doesn’t know the limits of her powers or how to control it. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, Briseis isn’t trying to hide her abilities from her parents, but she is hiding that her plant affinity is drawing her strongly towards poisonous plants, something hard to hide or experiment with while in Brooklyn. A surprise inheritance of an estate from an aunt Briseis never knew she had seems like the answer to a lot of their problems – they can get out of city for the summer and re-examine their struggling finances and Briseis will have plenty of room to experiment with her powers. But small town New York state is a world away from Brooklyn and Briseis’s birth family has a way weirder, and darker, backstory than they can ever imagine. When Briseis discovers a poison garden on the estate and strangers start showing up to ask her for magical remedies, she realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. Bayron weaves Greek mythology and magical realism into a fun coming of age story that is pure Black girl magic, with a bonus queer crush on the rich and mysterious girl who knows more than she’s letting on.

What I enjoyed most about This Poison Heart was the mix of YA sensibilities and gothic/mythological atmosphere. Briseis banters with her mothers and worries about her social life, but the location is a decaying mansion, a poison garden, and a small town where they don’t quite fit in yet. The poison garden she finds on the estate is so poisonous that literally no one else can get in without Briseis shielding them with her powers, but the plants leap to be near her like eager pets. There are teenage dates, but also a letters full of cryptic clues from her aunt. Briseis worries about how her hair looks and researches Greek legends with equal fervor. At one point, there’s a showdown in an old graveyard. It’s fun, but spooky. I had a fun time reading it, and I also had to urge to find some youths to recommend it to.

The heart of this story though is Briseis’s relationships. She has grown up knowing she’s adopted, and she shares a deep and loving relationship with her moms. She worries about the sacrifices they make to keep their shop open and help Briseis live her best life. They worry about if her powers will hurt her, or if she’ll make friends. The decision to move to her aunt’s estate is one they make together. Briseis has become estranged from her Brooklyn friends, but she (and her moms) are thrilled when she immediately meets new people. Carter knows his way around town and fills the friend void in her life. Briseis also develops an instant crush on Marie, a mysterious and rich girl who seems to know an awful lot about Briseis’s birth family (Briseis’s moms are especially delighted by this development). But Briseis is not fated to sit back and enjoy a summer fling in her new country estate – rather, the more she discovers about her family’s past, the faster developments happen, until not only Briseis but also her family and new friends are caught up in a web of mystery, magic, and mythology.

In conclusion, This Poison Heart was an exciting and fun YA novel. I greatly enjoyed the magical realism and gothic setting, and the Greek mythology was a fun addition and not too heavy-handed. As usual, I delight in books where the queerness is casual – Briseis’s two moms are presented as a loving fact and not a plot point. Briseis’s crush on Marie is overwhelming to her because that’s how teen crushes feel, not because she’s a girl. There’s Black family history in an estate where they’ve lived for generations but also culture shock in moving from Brooklyn to small town life. I had a great time reading, and I can’t wait for the sequel, out in June. Have a fun romp yourself, or pick it up for the magical-loving teens in your life today.

Rachel reviews When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill

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A totally surprising, whimsical, and powerful new novel, When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins 2022), is a queer historical fiction that is a must-read this summer!

The novel focuses on the complicated friendship between Marie Antoine, the wealthy heiress to her father’s Montreal sugar factory, and Sadie Arnett, a clever and unnerving girl whose family moves to Marie’s neighbourhood with her politically ambitious family. The two girls become fast friends, drawn to each other through their mutual intellect and intensity, until one day one of their games ends in tragedy, and in an effort to save the reputations of everyone involved, the two girls are separated. What follows in the novel is a long winding narrative of the two women’s lives together and apart across time and across a city that loves, hates, and loves to hate them. Complete with a cast of characters that enrich the narrative, O’Neill paints a fantastical portrait of nineteenth-century Montreal in all of its tragedy, glamour, grit, and delight.

In short, this novel is one of the cleverest texts I have ever read. O’Neill takes many of the principal characters from the French Revolution and transports them to nineteenth-century Montreal. Oh, and she genders all of them female. And the majority of them are queer. Although the novel is a fictional and magical realist text, When We Lost Our Heads is well-researched and full of compelling easter eggs that reveal the historical depth of the novel’s construction.

Furthermore, there really is nothing like O’Neill’s prose. I was anticipating this novel’s release after reading her other books, such as Daydreams of Angels (2015), The Lonely Hearts Hotel (2017), and Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006), and I wasn’t disappointed. O’Neill’s writing is immersive and full of intensity, with hints of magical realism. The relationships, connections, and twists in this novel kept me engaged. I have never encountered a book like this one, and I’ve already read it twice since its release this February.

When We Lost Our Heads is queer historical fiction at its finest, and Heather O’Neill is one of the most prolific voices currently writing in Canada.

Please follow Heather O’Neill on Twitter and put When We Lost Our Heads on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content warnings: sexual assault, violence against women

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.

Vic reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

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C.L. Clark’s The Unbroken is a gripping novel of empire and revolution, set in the fantasy country Qazāl, which has been colonized by the empire of Balladaire. Filled with complex world-building, magic, and betrayal, it follows the soldier Touraine, born in Qazāl and stolen as a child to serve in the Balladairan military, and Luca, the Balladairan princess who is plotting against the uncle who has stolen her throne.  This is not a light read, by any means.  Violent and unflinching, it examines the real nitty-gritty of revolution from the sides of both the rebels and the colonizers.  

Touraine’s perspective is particularly hard to read, as she goes from desperately trying to prove herself as an asset to the Balladairan army that will never see her as more than a Qazāli to joining the revolution trying to take it down.  Luca’s perspective, too, shows the ugliness of colonization, this time through her own character.  While Touraine comes face to face with the realization and wrestles with her own relationship to it constantly, Luca never quite seems to get it, which makes her perspective a good deal more frustrating to be in.  Everyone in this story does terrible things of varying levels, but there is a coldness to the way Luca does it that I struggled with more than I usually do with Mean Female Characters.  Of course, as this is only book one of an eventual trilogy, there is still time for her to grow.

The fact that I enjoyed this book as much as I did is, quite frankly, a little bit shocking, considering I don’t tend to enjoy gritty military/politics-focused stories, but I really did. It was incredibly smart and well-written (the similes in particular made me pause every time to just appreciate how evocative they were), and it kept me invested the whole time. Likewise, while I did not always like the characters, I found them and their relationships complex and compelling at all turns. I particularly enjoyed the moments with the other soldiers Touraine grew up with.

I think the reason I actively enjoyed this book beyond simply appreciating its many technical strengths is that, though it is gritty and realistic and sometimes difficult to read, it is never grim, or at least not for very long. This book, like its characters, has fire that keeps it moving, rather than simply lingering in the awful unfairness of everything. As dark as it gets, it leaves the reader still feeling like there is a point, like putting up a fight might actually take you somewhere.

My one criticism, if you consider it one, is that I did not care for the relationship, if you can call it that, between Touraine and Luca. I saw no reason for Touraine to like her, or even evidence that she actually did, considering Luca never seemed to actually respect Touraine as a person. I think this was intentional, in which case my complaint is simply a matter of personal preference rather than actual criticism of the book itself, but considering the note the book ends on, that left me feeling a little weird. But as I am not a person who enjoys reading about toxic relationships, you can take that with a grain of salt.

Overall, though, I was very impressed with this book for being not only well-crafted but actually enjoyable. Though it never flinches away from the harsh reality within it, the passion and humanity of its characters drives it on every page, leaving the readers with a fire that will stay with them long after the story ends.

Content warnings: Colonization, war, slavery, violence, torture, death, past sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, ableism, abuse, murder, grief, drugging.

Maggie reviews Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

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I knew going into Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin that it was going to be a wild ride. The pair of bloody testicles suggested by the cover tells you that right off the bat. And to tell the truth, I’ve mostly gone off of apocalypse fiction the last few years – given the state of the real world – but I was intensely interested in a trans-centered apocalypse story, and requested that my library purchase it.  A few marathon sessions – and some screeching at my book friends over messaging – later, and I had zero regrets and a lot of thoughts. Manhunt is a book of many bloody layers, all of them delightfully queer. The content warnings are numerous, but at its heart the story is in turns touching, funny, and cathartic, and if zombie apocalypse fiction is in your wheelhouse, you should give it a try.

I have decided, in the interest of article flow, to give the full list of content warnings at the end of this review. Please skip down to there if you have any doubts on the content, but in general Manhunt contains extreme amounts of violence, gore, and bigotry, with a little light cannibalism thrown in for flavor. *ahem* Set on the east coast of America, months after a deadly virus has swept the world and affected anyone with too much testosterone, the survivors struggle to stay alive amongst wandering packs of flesh-hungry zombies and the wreckage of civilization, as per standard fare in a zombie apocalypse.

The story centers Beth and Fran, two trans women who struggle to support themselves as hunters, only they do not hunt for food. They’re hunting feral men, so they can harvest their testicles and kidney lobes, which are, apparently, concentrated reserves of estrogen. They can eat the testicles themselves in a pinch, but their goal is to take them back to their friend Indi, who can refine the estrogen and sustain the community of people depending on it to not turn feral themselves, including trans women, non-binary people, and cis women with hormone disorders – anyone who would naturally have too much testosterone and be susceptible to the virus. (In the spirit of having a good time, I Did Not Question The Science of any of this, so you will have to do that research yourself.) 

The main danger they face though is not the feral men, it’s the Legion, or the Sisterhood, or whatever any particular group calls itself – bands of cis women who took advantage of the apocalypse to go full bigot and declare the virus vengeance for thousands of years of rape and torture and the oppression of women etc etc. They’ve gone militant, with XX face tattoos and all the sisterly new traditions and womyn-centered vocabulary they can make up, and they consider anyone trans an unnatural danger rather than a person, a bomb waiting to go off that must be eliminated before it can harm more “real” women (although they too are concerned with estrogen extraction, so evidently they’re willing to go the distance to protect their cis-ters with hormone imbalances from the plague). Trapped between the Legion and the whims of rich person bunker towns, Beth, Fran, Indi, and their new friend Robbie, a trans man who has been living in the woods by himself since the virus hit, struggle not only to survive, but with how far they’re willing to go and what they’re willing to do for that survival and what sort of community they can build up from the rubble they’ve been left with.

What I found especially thrilling and interesting about Manhunt was the dichotomy of its story. On a surface level, it’s a very normal zombie apocalypse novel, albeit one that does not hide the violence. Every few pages someone starts fighting with a nail gun, or busts open a skull with a blunt instrument, or mentions brutal police state measures. There are stockpiles of food and supplies. People are innovative about how they reuse things. There are vague references to things on a global scale that Don’t Look Good. Things you can find in any apocalyptic wasteland story, almost comforting in their presence. But then also dotted throughout the story, sustaining its humanity, are these incredible moments between characters that speak to deeper experiences. Characters talk about the importance of building and sustaining community, specifically trans community. About the politics and futility of passing in the face of fascism and when it crosses the line into betraying your friends. What things you have to hold onto to be yourself and what things you’d be willing to compromise in order to survive. Whether it’s worth surviving if those things are taken away. And the characters are this wonderful hodge-podge of traumatized zombie apocalypse survivors. Trans and Cis. Woods-training or militaristic or civilian. Passing and not. Nonbinary, allies, willing to fight, wanting to hide, oblivious, terrible, trying their best. And they’re all, to a person, hot messes. Not one single person has their shit together. Everything they do with and to each other is messy, emotionally and physically. The sex isn’t always nice and affirming. Sometimes it’s about proximity or it’s transactional.

Beth and Fran, for example, start out in a relationship based on their friendship and their life in the wilds, but it is strained almost beyond bearing as they come into contact with both the Legion and with the bunker compound they take refuge in. Beth, unable to pass, finds herself pushed into more and more repugnant situations and is forced to decide what she’ll put up with for safety or whether she can be safe at all in a compound. Meanwhile, Fran, once she’s not solely around Beth on hunting trips, makes a series of sexual and relationship decisions based on how feminine they make her feel and what they can get for her long term. There is a lot of focus on the choices available to each character vs what each character is ultimately looking for in a relationship in the context of transness and the new World Without Testosterone. And I found it so refreshing to be thrown into this messy, gory world, to roll around in the blood and the dirt with these characters, and still get shown moments of community and pulling together. To let these characters be messy and hurtful but also be good and have fulfilling relationships. This book is entirely bloody, but not entirely grim.

In conclusion, you should not push yourself to read this book if you don’t like zombie apocalypse novels, or if violence or gore bother you. But if you want trans-centered horror that does not shy away from what it has to say, I implore you to give Manhunt a shot. Be ready to have a good time, to yell about it to other people, to laugh at the moments where the author was clearly like “this is my novel so I can have this moment if I want to.” It was grim and bloody but it was also joyous and cathartic in the writing. Give it a shot and have a good time with it.

Content warnings include: violence, gore, transphobia, TERFs, bigotry, cannibalism, death, executions, torture, rape, assault, dubious consent, indentured service, slavery, dehumanization, medical experimentation, eating disorders, body dysphoria, white feminism.  I’m truly sorry if I’ve missed anything, but I think in general this covers it and gives the general tone of the novel.  It’s not for those bothered by violence.

Larkie reviews Finna by Nino Cipri

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I first came across this book when I was looking for a Christmas gift, and even though it didn’t quite fit the gift idea that I had in mind, I knew that I had to read this book. Finna is an absurd little story that perfectly encapsulates the feeling of working a low wage corporate retail job. The plot is simple: Ava and Jules work in definitely not IKEA, and a shopper’s grandmother has wandered off into a wormhole and gotten lost in the maze of multidimensional Scandinavian furniture store hell. Their supervisor sends them after her. Also, they just broke up.

The premise is a little ridiculous, but it feels totally plausible. Of course corporate downsizing eliminated specialized teams who used to handle interdimensional recovery! When has any large corporation cared about the safety of their workers? And training naturally consists of watching a single VHS tape that was filmed decades prior, before you’re expected to just…do whatever it is the company needs you to do. Capitalism is bleak, but we live in it, and we have to play by its rules. Some people, like the manager, embrace these rules because they think that playing by the rules will get them somewhere. Others, like the main duo, are just trying to get by, and try their best to create the best out of a bad situation.

This brings me to the relationship between Ava and Jules. As readers, we come into the relationship at its worst. Ava is anxious and overbearing, constantly thinking of how things can go wrong and trying to mitigate every possible disaster. This includes managing Jules, who is adamant about being their own person, despite the soul crushing job and their difficult past. The relationship wasn’t an inherently bad one: Jules managed to ease some of Ava’s tension, while Ava was more on top of things like dishes. But Ava’s need to fix anything grated on Jules’ desire for independence, and their reluctance to open up just made her worry harder. I really appreciated how there wasn’t any blame or fault assigned to the breakup, it was just a bad thing that had happened. But we also see the good parts of their relationship, how they started as work friends with fun little injokes, the kind of bonding that only happens in work situations. Their relationship is probably the reason why they both stayed in the bad job in the first place, and it made a bad situation bearable. And sometimes, what you need to work out your problems is some quality time together to talk about your feelings, while also escaping carnivorous chair plants and fighting off creepy clones.

This book was fun, and also really heartfelt. It’s about deciding what’s really important and the kind of people you want to spend time with in your life. It’s about queer love and the many forms that can take. There’s so much packed into such a little package, and even more that I haven’t touched on here. I had a hard time putting it down, which meant it was good that it wasn’t that long, because I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done if it was any longer!

Til reviews To Break a Covenant by Alison Ames

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To Break a Covenant is set in perpetual aftermath. The town was formed after a disaster in a nearby mine, where fires still burn and rain ash over the abandoned Moon Basin. The people of Moon Basin simply moved outside the range of the ash and formed New Basin, but they couldn’t escape the reputation, nor the supernatural evil of the mine. The story follows best friends Clem and Nina, two girls determined to leave Moon Basin, as well as their new friends Lisey and Piper.

Perhaps the book’s greatest flaw is that it never quite seems to happen. All the pieces are here–in many cases, pieces I love! Clem is not only queer but struggling with kleptomania. The problem is that this never seems to go anywhere. Clem’s kleptomania is relevant to minor scenes on two occasions. I don’t need an on-the-page romance to justify queerness, but like the kleptomania, it was so mild it felt like an informed trait. She had a crush for five minutes. It felt like a box being ticked.

The plot, too, suffers from its own absence. The book is not devoid of incidence. The girls go into the mine on multiple occasions, run away, find an oasis. People disappear. But none of it seems to matter, nor to build. It feels more like a string of loosely connected events leading to a conclusion that doesn’t fully happen.

To Break a Covenant has a lot of great pieces. The setting is eerily atmospheric. The characters have a lot of potential, and even realistic conflict. None of it ever feels fully realized, though. The main emotion I felt reading this book was boredom. While I applaud the effort, I wish the finished product were more fulfilling an experience.

Danika reviews She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

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Do you want to read a fun and absorbing new adult F/F romance written by a wife/wife author team? Of course you do. So you can probably stop reading the review now. Go ahead and grab it.

This follows two point of view characters: Alex and Molly. Alex is a flirt who doesn’t take anything too seriously, which is why her on-again off-again girlfriend, Natalie, doesn’t trust her while she’s touring. Alex has promised to make platonic friends and stop flirting with every queer girl she sees, it will be an uphill battle to convince Natalie.

Meanwhile, Molly has had a crush on Cora since they were in high school together. Now, they’re starting at the same university, but she still can’t seem to get up the courage to ask her out. Or talk to her at all. That’s where Alex comes in, who promises to teach Molly how to get the girl. At least, she will if Molly promises to serve as a platonic friend reference at the end of this.

They quickly rub each other the wrong way, especially when Cora swoons over Alex. They have diametrically opposed personalities and are constantly bickering over the best course of action.

This has aspects of a Cyrano story: Alex is trying to get Molly together with Cora, but their relationship keeps deepening. They begin to confide in each other, perhaps because this odd arrangement allows them to be more vulnerable. Alex talks about financially supporting her alcoholic mother and how she’s worried that she won’t be able to keep her safe now that she’s not living at home.

Meanwhile, Molly’s relationship with her mom has also changed: they used to be each other’s best friends, but Molly is trying to find some independence and resents her mother for not letting her go. Molly’s mom is also a Korean adoptee who internalized a lot of racism in her upbringing, which is hard for Molly to deal with as a mixed race person.

I actually wish we had a little bit more time with both of these subplots, because there are big, thorny topics that don’t have a lot of space to be explored in this story. We only get a handful of lines devoted to either Molly’s or Alex’s moms, and the wrap-up of those plotlines feels a little abrupt.

But of course, this is a romance, and that’s where our attention is. I felt so much while reading this like I was watching a teen romantic comedy movie, including all the banter. (And yes, we get the cute rollerskating date promised by the front cover.)

This was compulsively readable. I would pick it up meaning to just read a chapter and resurface several chapters later. It’s a cute love story with some charmingly oblivious main characters who somehow don’t notice that they’re falling for each other. This is being marketed as YA, but it follows Alex and Molly as they start college

My only other complaint about this one is that I felt like it ended early. I wanted just a little bit more time with this couple. (Semi-spoiler, but not really because this is a romance: it ends immediately after they get together). I mean, they’re teenagers, so I’m not expecting to see their wedding, but I would have liked a glimpse into their more established relationship.

If you like sapphic romcoms, I definitely recommend this one.

This review was adapted from my review on the April 5th episode of All the Books.

Meagan Kimberly reviews They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

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Carly Schiller is finally away from her abusive family, but her freshman year at Gorman isn’t going that well either. She befriends and starts to fall for her roommate Allison Hadley and becomes close with Allison’s childhood friend Wes. But when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party and Carly insists on bringing her friend to the hospital and then taking the issue to the school, a rift begins to tear them apart. No one is treating Allison’s situation as she thinks they should, and as tensions rise, it all ends in tragedy.

Scarlett Clark is an English professor at Gorman with an unexpected pastime — murder. Scarlett finds wrongdoers, rapists and all-around creeps to target and bring to justice the way the justice system should have but failed to do. But her most recent kill brings the authorities too close, and she’s found out by her colleague, Dr. Mina Pierce, her victim’s ex-wife. It doesn’t help that there’s a palpable connection between her and Mina.

Almost all the men throughout the book represent the worst of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, so it’s easy to sympathize with Carly and Scarlett as they begin to lose control. The blatant perpetuation of rape culture from authority figures who should be protecting them is infuriating. Wes turns out to be a Nice Guy™, showcasing one of the more sinister types of male entitlement. He believes because he offers Allison and Carly friendship that they owe him a sexual and/or romantic relationship.

As stated before, almost all the men are the worst. The only men in the entire story who are decent are Scarlett’s gay, married colleagues. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book, as the only good men are gay is a tired and stereotypical trope.

The way I pitch this book is as the meme, “I support women’s rights, but I also support women’s wrongs.” Even though Carly and Scarlett turn to violence to exact justice, it’s a visceral satisfaction that’s easy to fall into. (spoilers, highlight to read) And while you’re waiting for it all to come crashing down, the unexpected happens: a happy ending. (end of spoilers)

Fargo’s writing is fast-paced and propels the story at a compelling pace. It’s hard to put the book down as you flip back and forth between Carly’s and Scarlett’s stories to see how they converge.

Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault

Nat reviews My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke

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If I were going to throw a book down into the middle of a fray between Romance readers and Lit Fic lovers, it would be My Home Is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke. This novel is absolute proof that you can have it all. You do NOT have to choose. You do NOT have to suffer (okay, maybe a little suffering, there’s angst aplenty, but you don’t have to endure the pain for an eternity). You, my friend, can read exceptional prose and get the HEA of your dreams. (Cue Oprah doling out Happy Endings to the readers.) 

As though it was plucked straight out of the depths of classic Southern literature, Clarke’s novel is set in Eastern Tennessee in the early 1930’s. As someone who grew up in the south and read my fair share of Southern authors, heaps of Faulkener with a side of Zora Neale Hurston, this book was right up my alley from the start. The novel focuses on the relationship between Cecilia Howison, a privileged young woman from a wealthy, influential Southern family, and Airey Fitch, a local fiddler and hard working young woman living up in the Smoky Mountains. Her family is rich in land, but otherwise destitute. Major themes in this novel include economic inequality, exploitation of the lower classes, religion (specifically Christianity), and societal expectations around gender and sexuality. 

One of the highlights of the book for me is that it plays with language and dialect in ways that any self-respecting word nerd should eat up with a spoon. Reference to regional mountain dialect and the perception of words spoken is something the author plays with throughout the book, as well as how language relates to class and education. There is so much to unpack and explore in the novel that I’ve barely mentioned the romantic entanglements of our two MCs, Cecilia and Airey. Their budding friendship is based on Cecilia’s desire to show the world that Airey Fitch is an undiscovered violin prodigy, though she maaay have some ulterior motives as she’s a bit sweet on Airey from the very start. 

As the two women explore their relationship further, we start to wade into the waters of religion (with various interpretations) and the societal pressures of the time. We see their individual world views and how they’re shaped by their beliefs in ways you may not expect. But as you might have guessed, the relationship is fraught with fear of societal repercussions and looks doomed from the start. But I’ll remind you, this is a romance. Fear not. 

One last thing to say about Clarke’s writing: this was a well researched, and I mean, really thoroughly researched novel. After reading it I went to the author’s website for her book, which details her notes chapter by chapter, with pictures and information on everything from clothing to cars. It is fascinating and I highly recommend you at least scan it a bit during reading, as it includes music as well. Airey can play just about anything on her violin, from old time standards popular in that time to Dvořák and Bach. Descriptions of Airey’s music are well executed, and if you want to listen along, some of it can be found on the website. (Be advised though, the site contains spoilers, so don’t skip ahead.) 

10/10 – Now if only someone would come along and make this into a movie! 

Sam reviews The Thousand Eyes by A. K. Larkwood

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When I reviewed The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood, this is what I wrote:

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that.

Well, you’ll never guess what happened.

The Thousand Eyes is the second book in the Serpent Gates series by A. K. Larkwood, following her debut novel The Unspoken Name. But, in a move that seems intended to contradict everything I wrote in my previous review, The Thousand Eyes is a startlingly different book from its predecessor. Larkwood’s writing is still snappy and her character voices enjoyable, but the plot has turned from something predictable and satisfying into a narrative primarily defined by twists and anxiety.

The novel picks up two years after the end of the first book, with Csorwe, Shuthmili, and Tal making a life for themselves guarding archeological expeditions in the Echo Maze. Instead of exploring new territory in Larkwood’s imaginative collage of colliding fantasy worlds, however, The Thousand Eyes seems intent on retreading familiar ground—Iriskivaal, Echentyr, and of course the previous book’s villain, Belthandros Sethennai. But before I could even cultivate any proper disappointment at this, Csorwe is suddenly possessed by a fragment of the dead snake goddess. Shuthmili can’t save her, so she swears fealty in a desperate hope that time will give her an answer. And then the book jumps fifteen years into the future.

Yes, fifteen years. The worlds we knew are being trampled underfoot by an empire reborn, and our characters are either dead or have been hardened and harrowed by a decade and a half of violence and despair. Chapters from Shuthmili dwindle in number; by the halfway point, it feels more like Tal’s story than anyone else’s. Even as the novel kept me nervously turning pages, I found myself nurturing a sick hope that perhaps some plot contrivance could undo all this, could rewind the clock and return the story back to where it was at the beginning. Which is certainly an emotional investment to have in a novel, but I can’t imagine it’s what the author intended me to feel.

The reason I said in my review of The Unspoken Name that I would be alright with it remaining a stand-alone novel is that the book’s ending perfectly enables readers to imagine the many thrilling and romantic adventures that Csorwe and Shuthmili could have together. The potential is there, and sometimes that’s enough. But in one fell swoop, The Thousand Eyes takes all the promise from the end of The Unspoken Name and erases it.

One of The Unspoken Name’s primary themes was choice—Shuthmili chose to live with the woman she loved, even if it meant dying young to mageblight, rather than live long tethered to her rigid society with no individual will. Csorwe gave up the approval of her adopted father and all the power and privilege he could offer, and even faced the terror of her religious upbringing, all to be with Shuthmili. These are incredibly relatable lesbian experiences illuminated in the colorful pageantry of fantasy adventure! But now, nothing’s come of it. The choices that Csorwe, Shuthmili, and even Tal made pale in consequence to this much larger, darker portion of their lives. All the adventures that could have occurred, now we know for certain were never meant to be.

What hurts most is that The Thousand Eyes is still a well written book, one that the author clearly believes in. Her heart is in this story—but sadly, mine isn’t. If there is ever a third novel in the Serpent Gates series, it seems likely it will put the lesbians aside as protagonists in favor of Tsereg, the new non-binary teenage embodiment of the Unspoken. The abrupt change in main characters may be some readers’ cup of tea, certainly, but it isn’t mine. I think I’ll be getting off the Maze ship here, with my slightly bruised heart and my dreams of what might have been.

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.